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The Globe and Mail

Torrent of debris in Fairmont, B.C. a ‘very near miss’

Water and debris surround homes at the edge of a golf course in Fairmont, B.C.

Emergency Info BC

The only warning that a debris torrent was about to crash through the middle of a Rocky Mountain tourist resort in British Columbia came from lifeguards at a busy pool who saw the water turning muddy and raised the alarm.

Marke Dickson, director of sales and marketing at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, said minutes after the lifeguards shouted at people to get to higher ground and coralled swimmers in the pool area, which is up on a terrace, a wall of mud, rocks and broken trees roared past, taking out a nearby road and a pedestrian bridge, but apparently not claiming any victims.

The debris torrent (which differs from a landslide in that it is a flood of saturated soil and other material down a stream channel) was initially contained by the steep banks of Fairmont Creek. After it passed between the pool and a campground, it spilled out onto a golf course before dissipating at the edge of a housing development, where it damaged two units.

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"It was very fast. … In 15 minutes, the crest of the thing had passed," said Mr. Dickson, who praised the lifeguards and other resort staff for staying calm and making sure people were out of harm's way.

He said the intake pipe at the pool draws cold water from Fairmont Creek to cool the natural hot springs, which are an international tourism attraction, and the lifeguards went to investigate when they saw mud getting into the system.

"They saw the creek level had dropped," Mr. Dickson said. The lifeguards shouted warnings to people after correctly guessing that the creek was blocked upstream. When that dam burst, it sent a wave of debris hurtling downstream.

"They could see it coming down," Mr. Dickson said. "They described it as a wall of debris [and] … described a feeling of a freight train rumbling as it went through."

He said damage to the nearby road and footbridge cut off 600 people in an RV campground overnight Sunday, but repairs were completed on Monday.

Although no one has been reported missing, the RCMP issued a request on Monday for all travellers in the area to get in touch with friends or family.

Corporal Dan Moskaluk said police want to know as soon as possible about anyone who has not been heard from since the slide hit late Sunday afternoon.

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"Somebody may have been knocked over, swept away, God forbid. Right now, it doesn't look that way … [but] there could be future reports of missing persons," he said. "If you are travelling near Fairmont Hotsprings, please check in with home."

Cpl. Moskaluk said the slide – eerily similar to the one that killed four people in Johnsons Landing last week – could easily have buried victims.

"That was a very near miss," he said of the Fairmont debris torrent. "It's amazing we don't have immediate reports of deaths."

Wendy Booth, a director of the East Kootenay Regional District, said the dam in the creek was apparently caused by a landslide, and it suddenly broke and freed the debris torrent. That is almost identical to what happened at Johnsons Landing last Thursday, when a wave of rocks and mud demolished two homes, killing four people.

Ms. Booth said a geological assessment indicates no continued risk at Fairmont Creek, but the situation is still being studied.

Barb McLintock of the B.C. Coroners Service said her office is investigating the Johnsons Landing incident, which killed Valentine Webber, 60, his daughters, Rachel, 17, and Diana, 22, and their neighbour, Petra Frehse, 64, a German who summered in the community.

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But she said it is too early to say exactly what will be addressed in the investigation.

The lack of warning at Johnsons Landing may be one aspect examined. A resident of the small community on Kootenay Lake tried to alert government to the pending danger, but the e-mail message wasn't opened until after the slide struck.

Ms. McLintock said the body of Mr. Webber was recovered on Sunday, and an unidentified female was found nearby late Monday. Searchers are still looking for the other two women.

Lyn Migdal, mother of the two sisters, last week criticized search and rescue teams for waiting until Friday afternoon to enter the debris field and search the shattered Webber home.

But Bill Macpherson, public information officer for the Regional District of Central Kootenay, said search crews entered the zone as soon as it was safe to do so.

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