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As the rising river destroyed the homes and livelihoods of many rural people along Highway 8, things could have been much worse for Kim Cardinal if an animal she rescued hadn’t returned the favour

Kim Cardinal, right, is comforted by a friend after returning from a helicopter flight to view what remains of her home. The Nicola River swallowed up the hobby farm she runs with her partner near Spences Bridge, B.C.Artur Gajda/The Globe and Mail

The moment she laid eyes on Winter, Kim Cardinal knew she had to help him. The cream-coloured quarter horse with bright blue eyes was emaciated, covered in angry, pink sores and maggots. His previous owner had hit hard times.

“People kept telling me not to buy him because he was in such bad shape,” says Ms. Cardinal, 59. “I did it anyway. I couldn’t just leave him there.”

It was two years ago that Ms. Cardinal saved Winter. Two weeks ago, Winter saved Ms. Cardinal.

It all began the night of Nov. 15, as the raging Nicola River rose rapidly on the property Ms. Cardinal shares with her partner, Lorn Thibodeau, on Highway 8, near tiny Spences Bridge, B.C., a town of 150.

The pair, who arrived in the Nicola Valley two years ago, are what’s known here as “604s”: migrants from the Lower Mainland. They raised two children in Chilliwack, where Mr. Thibodeau, 55, worked as a sign fabricator. The hobby farm on the Nicola was a retirement dream. They transformed the run-down property into a tidy family compound where their kids came to unwind.

Because their power, phone and internet were all out, Ms. Cardinal didn’t realize the extent of the danger until an off-duty Surrey RCMP officer wandered onto the property after dark.

Constable Brett Schmidt had been returning home from Kamloops on the highway that paralleled the Nicola when he felt the ground giving way under his tires. Just in time, he abandoned his vehicle: “I was probably a few seconds away from the back end of my truck going downwards. I would’ve been in the river for sure,” Constable Schmidt says.

He set off on foot, trees and power lines crashing to earth around him. Properties here are identified by their distance – in miles – from Spences Bridge. At 5 Mile, he found Ms. Cardinal’s farm. Constable Schmidt, who had fallen into the river, was soaking wet, and muddy. Ms. Cardinal ushered him in.

Shortly after, she ventured out into the murky night with a barely working flashlight to check on Winter and a miniature horse and a mule who were in a corral that runs parallel to the highway. She found Winter in a terrified state. “He had his back up against the fence, pushing as hard as he could.” When he saw Ms. Cardinal, the two-year-old gelding began stomping all four feet, as if he were dancing. “He was trying to tell me something.” But what?

“You okay, buddy?” Ms. Cardinal called softly as she approached. Shining the feeble beam behind him, she saw that half their property was gone. Their chicken coop, 10 peacocks, a cabin – all had disappeared, and in their place was a gaping, 20-foot-deep hole.

Ms. Cardinal reflects on her losses at the Packing House café in Spences Bridge.Artur Gajda/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Cardinal turned and ran, screaming for Constable Schmidt and Mr. Thibodeau. The trio high-tailed it for a trailer on the road with the couple’s five dogs, five cats and a litter of Great Pyrenees puppies – four stumbling, yawning, white fluffballs.

Less than five minutes later, the rest of the property disappeared all at once. The trio was left stunned, stranded on the small patch of road with their animals.

“If Winter hadn’t warned me,” Ms. Cardinal says, “I would have gone back to warm up. And we’d all be gone.”

Perhaps because of its immense scale, the flooding in the Lower Mainland has been dominating headlines and government attention for the past two weeks. Because the destruction in the Nicola Valley is still almost impossible to access – all inbound highways but one remain closed, and no politicians have visited the region – it remains a kind of afterthought.

But many of the ranchers and folks living along Highway 8, a scenic, secondary roadway connecting Merritt with Spences Bridge, haven’t just lost homes. This summer, they saw wildfires decimate the surrounding land; a scant few months later, they witnessed as the earth swallowed their properties whole.

They cannot rebuild. There is nothing there left for them. Only the river remains.

At top, a pickup truck and fallen tree lie in the muddy aftermath of the Nicola River flooding. Ms. Cardinal and her partner Lorn Thibodeau, bottom, made it out of their property with only minutes to spare before the waters took it all.Artur Gajda and Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

Even after Winter’s warning, Ms. Cardinal was not safe. She could hardly hear the others over the river’s angry roar. The horses stayed hitched to the trailer while, all night, boulders – some as large as tractors – came crashing down the steep scree toward them, splashing into the raging river.

The Nicola was tearing great big chunks from Highway 8. Three bridges along a six-kilometre span were destroyed. The road was left so battered it may be a year before repairs are complete. Rescue, when it came, was by helicopter.

This was “our beloved river, our swimming hole, the lifeblood of our farm,” says Brandie MacArthur, Ms. Cardinal’s neighbour at 5.5 Mile. But that night, “it turned into the demon river from hell.” The home Ms. MacArthur shares with her husband Michael Couts and their 10-year-old daughter Luna is still standing, perched precariously on the river’s edge. The family, homesteaders who haven’t been inside a grocery store in four years, lost barns, chicken coops, a greenhouse, a shop and some 300 fruit trees. Fully four acres of farmland was swallowed by the Nicola.

The family fled for high ground when the river rose to their ankles in their kitchen. They spent a sleepless night in their truck, the earth shaking beneath them. “I’m so scared,” Luna said. “You’re so brave,” her mother reminded her.

“I want to see the grandkids one last time,” Ms. Cardinal remembers telling Mr. Thibodeau, whom she began dating as a 22-year-old. “I don’t want to die.” Mr. Thibodeau wrapped his arms around her: “It’s okay,” he said. “If we die, we’ll be together.” For hours, they huddled, praying for dawn as the rain fell around them in sheets.

Two weeks later, their downstream neighbour remains missing, according to the RCMP, which has declined to name her. Her log home was obliterated. The last anyone in Spences Bridge heard from her was by text: “I’m fine,” she wrote Paulet Rice, the local postmaster. “You still okay?” Ms. Rice wrote an hour later. There was no reply.

Forests in the river valley were heavily damaged by fire in August, which baked the top layers of soil into a waterproof surface that couldn't absorb November's heavy rain.Artur Gajda and Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

The flooding on Nov. 15 came three months to the day after a wildfire tore through the Lower Nicola Valley on Aug. 15.

In places, you can still smell soot and creosote. The forest – or what remains of it – looks like thousands of black pencils stuck into white snow. The burn is so vast that, from a helicopter, charred forest is all you can see for almost five minutes.

Some here wonder whether the ponderosa pine forests will ever return. One third of Rocky Mountain forests that have burned in the past decade have not.

The fire also transformed the surrounding mountains’ spongey root systems to blackened, rock hard soil. So, the water, instead of soaking into the ground, now rips down the mountain in torrents – at least part of the reason the Nicola filled like a bathtub two weeks ago.

All but one of the highways in and out of the Nicola Valley were impassable when The Globe visited. At bottom, the water flows only metres away from properties neighbouring those of ranchers Wayne and Rhonda MacDonald.Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

For six weeks this summer, Wayne and Rhonda MacDonald watched the Lytton Creek wildfire approach from their acreage at 17 Mile. It had begun on June 30, tearing through the Village of Lytton, then burning northwest, toward Spences Bridge. Over two months, it mowed down more than 80,000 hectares of forest.

Residents of the lower valley began to really worry on the windy afternoon of Aug. 9, when the B.C. Wildfire Service lit a back burn. Two days later, the temperature hit 39 C in the valley, where it stayed for four days. On Aug. 15, the two fires met. “Right,” Mr. MacDonald said to himself when he rose that day at 4 a.m. “Today’s the day.”

To friends, rancher Mr. MacDonald, a Shackan Indian Band member, is known as “Wayner.” He only ever walks as though he is in a hurry. He is so tough it looks as if he could have been chiseled from stone. Ms. MacDonald, who was also raised on a ranch, is more smiles and soft edges, but neighbours still describe her as fierce, Wayne’s equal in every sense.

They built Bar-FX Ranch from scratch after falling in love with a raw piece of land on the eastern edge of Shackan territory in 1995, Ms. MacDonald says: “We poured our hearts and souls into the land and the animals. We raised our sons here. We planned on dying here.”

Wayne MacDonald has bitter memories of how the August wildfires damaged his land and livestock.Nancy Macdonald/The Globe and Mail

Mr. MacDonald choked up describing the rush to get their animals onto a cattle liner that August day: “I’m pushing. Just like a football player – just pushing and pushing.” There were still five calves to go. His son Wyatt was screaming at him to stop: the truck was full. “Well, I wouldn’t quit. I just kept pushing and pushing. Finally, he’s screaming at me: Dad – quit it, they’re not going.”

So, he moved the calves into the riding arena. Jogging to the exit, he suddenly had trouble getting air in: “The fire sucked out all the oxygen.” The roar behind him sounded like “1,000 propane torches in my ear.”

In the end, those calves survived. The MacDonalds managed to save their home, too. But they lost 32 animals on the range – 16 pairs of mothers and calves – and 70 per cent of their rangeland.

They recognized the fallen animals by sight. “To us, they’re not just cattle,” Ms. MacDonald explains. “They’re part of our herd. They were our future.” They all died facing the trail, their young beside them. “They were making a run for it,” Ms. MacDonald says.

Last Sunday, she watched the Nicola rise another three feet, submerging part of their calving barn. The floor is covered in four feet of heavy, cold, grey muck from the last flood, a week ago. Their blue recliner – where Ms. MacDonald used to nap through her animals’ early labour – is caked in mud. Even their tortoiseshell cat is filthy.

Mr. MacDonald’s mother, Rena Sam, a survivor of St. George’s residential school in Lytton, could be out of her beloved Shackan home for a year, or more. But Wayne, her only child, is all she can think about. He has been so stressed now for so long, she worries they might lose him to a heart attack.

Ms. MacDonald, a breast cancer survivor of two decades, ended up with high blood pressure after the fires. A few days ago, she found a sore lump in her armpit, the same side as her earlier cancer.

We were so afraid of the fire, Ms. MacDonald says. “But it was the flood that ended up taking us out.”

“We are, for all intents and purposes, out of the ranching game,” she adds. “We don’t have enough land anymore to sustain calving out our cattle in the winter. Our corrals, our fields – it’s all gone. A quarter of our hay field is gone. And right now, we’re sitting ducks: The river is aiming right for the house.”

B.C. floods: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel

Reporters Andrea Woo and Ann Hui spoke on The Globe and Mail’s news podcast about the post-flood situation in Abbotsford, part of B.C.’s agricultural heartland, and what impact it will have on the food supply. Subscribe for more episodes.

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