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Barring heavy rain, search for B.C. landslide victims set to resume

The swath of a landslide that buried three homes and has left four people unaccounted for in Johnsons Landing, B.C., is seen from across Kootenay Lake on Saturday, July 14, 2012.


A desperate bid to rescue four people believed buried in a huge southeastern British Columbia landslide is expected to continue Sunday by search crews wading through piles of rock, mud and trees that roared down a mountainside.

Bill MacPherson of the Central Kootenay Regional District said about 40 personnel armed with heavy equipment worked until dusk Saturday and were expected to return as early as possible Sunday — unless rainfall again interferes with search efforts.

Police dogs were also expected to return to the site that still poses some risks, he said.

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"The debris is three to five metres deep in places over most of the site so it's problematic."

At least three homes were crushed by the slide in the tiny hamlet of Johnsons Landing on Thursday.

Lynn Migdal, who now lives in Delray Beach, Fla., has identified the missing as her 17 and 22-year-old daughters Rachel and Diana Webber, along with her ex-husband Val Webber.

A female German tourist is also believed to have been caught in the debris.

The dangerous search for them was delayed Friday until engineers were sure the pile of rubble could support crews going back in.

RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk said eight residents in the community of 35 people have refused to leave their homes for Kaslo, across the lake from the slide, even though they were told they should not stay.

"Authorities and experts are advising people to the best of their knowledge and expertise that there's some risk involved in their staying in that area but you can only do so much to make them leave," he said.

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The slide that has devastated the community left logs strewn about like matchsticks along what's left of a mountain that is believed to have collapsed after record amounts of rain pelted the Kootenay region in June.

Mayor Greg Lay of nearby Kaslo, B.C., said he is shaken by the disaster.

"This is a major catastrophe, one that is hard to comprehend. All of us are helping in any way we can those impacted by the landslide."

Around midnight Friday, Forests Minister Steve Thomson issued a statement saying a ministry employee had received an e-mail about signs of trouble in the community before the slide hit.

Forests Ministry spokesman Dave Crebo said a resident who became alarmed after noticing debris in the local creek e-mailed neighbours at 4:56 a.m. Thursday and that one person in the group forwarded the message to a research hydrologist at the ministry at 8:47 a.m.

However, Mr. Crebo said that employee was working in the field and didn't open the e-mail until about 11:30 a.m., about a half hour after the slide had already occurred.

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In the e-mail, the Johnsons Landing resident said she noticed "surges of chocolate-coloured water that came down Gar Creek," each bringing down a significant number of logs and debris and causing a jam.

"As soon as the log jam formed, gravel began to be deposited behind it," she said. "The entire level of the creekbed has now been raised at least (1.8 metres) in that area."

"The entire creekbed has been made raw and is constantly being scoured and reshaped. It was truly amazing to watch the speed with which radical shape-shifting was occurring."

The woman said she later noticed that the whole creek was flowing over and down her driveway for about 23 metres.

"It is impossible to get through," she said in the e-mail, which was obtained from the Forests Ministry with all names removed.

In the e-mail, the woman went on to say that she told a friend who was once involved in search and rescue about her concerns and that "he expressed in no uncertain terms just how dangerous this type of situation can be."

She said that when she told him that she and her mother would be going for a walk to take another look at the creek, "he said something like, `For God's sake, stay on high ground.'"

The woman concluded her e-mail by appealing for ideas on how the community could resolve the issues she observed in the creek, and said they could perhaps hike to place where hey could view the creek from above or have the government send out a helicopter.

"My conversation with the search and rescue friend underscored and emphasized highly what we had already been thinking in this house: That we need to somehow learn FOR SURE what is actually going on up there."

Jeremy Zandbergen, executive director of the Kootenay Boundary Region, said it's unfortunate that the residents tried to resolve their concerns on their own instead of immediately contacting authorities.

"What they should have done was actually contact the local emergency operations centre and these people can strike up the operations centre at a moment's notice — whether it's an ambulance, police, search and rescue team or geotechnical engineer to conduct an inspection and assess the safety of the area," he said.

However, the actions of the community that includes about 10 homes are understandable, said Mr. Zandbergen, who is also a geotechnical engineer.

"We have to try and put ourselves in their shoes," he said. "They're in a small community, in this very independent lifestyle away from the rest of society for much of the year. They subsist on their own quite independently, come up with solutions all on their own."

Mr. Crebo said dam safety officials were notified three minutes after the Forests Ministry heard of the slide, and other agencies were also dispatched within minutes.

An RCMP helicopter was en route to the area 19 minutes after the ministry was notified about the disaster and a second police chopper was dispatched within 58 minutes, he said.

The landslide is blocking the only road into Johnsons Landing, leaving the area accessible only by helicopter or boat.

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