A week of record-breaking heat has led to flooding, mudslides, highway closings and evacuations across the southern Interior of British Columbia and now communities are bracing for heavy rains this weekend that could feed significant flood hazards.
With a large swath of the province under flood alert, flood watch or flood warnings, Bowinn Ma, Minister of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness, urged British Columbians to ready “pack and go” bags in case of evacuation. The flood risk as of Thursday ranged from the Peace River in the northeast down to the Kootenays and the Okanagan.
“Circumstances do evolve very, very quickly. It is important that British Columbia and residents refer directly to their local government or First Nations for the latest information about evacuation orders and alerts,” Ms. Ma told a news conference.
Susan McMillan, manager of Grubstake Food Mart and owner of Susan’s Sweets & Savories in Cache Creek, was only able to watch as the spring flooding took over her village.
Ms. McMillan said she was initially reassured when long-time residents explained the flooding was normal for the time of year. Then, the water intensified over the next few days. “Those same people were in the store Wednesday saying ‘Oh, it’s the worst I’ve ever seen,’” she said.
In the village of Cache Creek, 13 homes were evacuated, and part of Highway 97 was washed out. Other residents, unless part of local sandbag crews, were urged to stay home and out of the way of emergency response efforts.
With the store being across from main flooding zones, Ms. McMillan said she had a “firsthand view” of not only the flooding but also of Cache Creek residents coming together in a time of need.
She said a man told her he lost his basement despite crews trying their best to hold off the water.
“It’s really hard to see people going through this kind of thing. At the same time, I watched the community spirit.”
She said residents young and old worked tirelessly with sandbags to help protect the village.
The mayor of Cache Creek, John Ranta, has declared a local state of emergency. “It’s just water everywhere and going down the highway,” he said in an interview.
Five years ago, Mr. Ranta went to the provincial government with a map to show what needed to be fixed to reduce the annual flood risk. A weir on private property that had been managed by local ranchers to control the flow of Cache Creek needed maintenance. But he said that work wasn’t done.
While he wishes the province had acted, he said there is little that can be done at this point. “There are other things that could be done at other times of the year to mitigate the problem, such as maintaining the weir or putting in a new one,” he said. “But at this point, the water is going to keep coming until the snow finishes melting.”
Ms. Ma said the province did provide money to the community to develop a flood mitigation plan, and she said she would follow up after the current state of emergency “to discuss how we can move their flood mitigation plans forward.”
The province has been promising for at least three years to fix the fragmented system of flood protection that is managed at the community level. Ms. Ma again promised the reforms are coming – but not in time to prepare for this week’s rapid snowmelt triggered by extreme weather.
She said the province is still working on a new flood protection plan. “We are recognizing that the disjointed arrangement of dike infrastructure in British Columbia needs to be improved upon.”
The southern Interior community of Grand Forks, on the Canada-U. S. border, was due to finish its flood mitigation project this spring, five years after a one-in-200-year flood damaged at least 400 homes and destroyed another 50. In May of 2018, floodwaters from three rivers in the region – the Granby, Kettle and West Kettle – broke 1948 water-level records by about 60 centimetres.
The federal and provincial governments contributed more than $50-million for flood mitigation measures in Grand Forks, mostly for new dikes but also to convert the low-lying residential area of North Ruckle into a floodplain to let the river expand during a flood.
On Thursday, the city was distributing sandbags and building temporary dams, while 34 homes were placed on evacuation alert. But the city has, for the first time, the capacity to pump excess water out of the downtown core.
Ms. Ma said Grand Forks is a model for flood mitigation planning. “Grand Forks is in a far better position today to manage flood waters than they were five years ago,” she told reporters, but added that the diking system “does have a weakness that we hope to plug this weekend.”
Dave Campbell, head of the River Forecast Centre, said the province has abruptly shifted from a cool spring to extreme high temperatures in the south, prompting rapid melting of snowpack. This weekend, the warm weather is expected to change to rain, which will feed the runoff to rivers that are already high, as well as potentially triggering new areas of flooding.
”We could see exacerbation of those conditions. We can also expect to see new areas coming online as rivers are challenged with this additional runoff from snowmelt and rainfall.”