The evacuation order came three days after Graham Zillwood’s bed and breakfast was swallowed by the Coquihalla River.
His property – a home, a business, and several buildings and garages just a short walk from Othello Tunnels – washed away on Nov. 15. An order and alert was issued on Nov. 18.
Over the next nine days, neighbours Kat and Don Page watched the raging waters sweep logs away from a holding yard upriver, transform construction trailers into scrap, and cut through the local campground, pulling RVs and outbuildings away. Nearby power lines had started to collapse.
On the tenth day, Nov. 28, their home washed away. An evacuation order was issued three hours later.
“We were watching the river all night long,” she said, of her and her neighbours. “I took my dog out there and someone yelled over at me ‘You might want to get out!’”
The Fraser Valley Regional District (FVRD), responsible for some 20,000 rural residents outside the incorporated municipalities, was late issuing evacuation orders on numerous occasions.
When Hatzic Lake’s water levels started to rise on Nov. 16, the City of Mission issued an evacuation order for eight properties on Benbow Street.
But the adjacent 300 mobile-home units in Everglades Resort – just across the bridge dividing Mission and the FVRD – didn’t receive an evacuation order until Nov. 19, just after the City of Mission had rescinded theirs.
Mission staff had notified the FVRD they were issuing an order, according to CAO Mike Younie.
The FVRD issued an evacuation alert for the entire Hatzic Valley (around 1,600 properties) the evening of Nov. 28, after a landslide had forced Mission Search and Rescue to rescue a family trapped on their property by helicopter.
On Dec. 3, they issued an evacuation order for 56 properties in the Hatzic Prairie, but flood water had already receded and residents refused to leave.
Homeowner Peter Schalkx said the order came about three days late.
“I looked at the search and rescue guy, and I said, ‘This isn’t for flooding?’ And he goes, ‘A little too late,’” Schalkx said. “By that time our roads were clear, water had dropped a foot-and-a-half to two feet already.
“We all thought of that as a joke.”
About 25 people were pulled into FVRD’s Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) from their regular jobs last month, said Jason Lum, chair of FVRD’s board.
They were responsible for an approximately 14,000 square-kilometre area, with eight geographically unique electoral districts. That’s one person for every 560 square kilometres.
Abbotsford’s EOC, by comparison, had nearly 400 city staff covering a 375 square-kilometre area.
Lum disagreed they were consistently late with evacuation orders, but agreed they faced numerous challenges: the vast, sparsely populated, remote areas they had to cover; intelligence gathering on emergency situations; the sheer number of critical incidents, coupled with a lack of resources.
“We had slides, wash outs, overland floods, we had dike breaches, we had seepage, we had massive slope failures, and then we had major critical transportation links severed,” Lum said, noting there were around 70 critical incidents in total.
He said they issued evacuation alerts and orders in response to the information reported by the public, but it also required sending technicians out to evaluate each situation.
“There’s definitely places where we’ve identified it needs to be faster,” Lum said, adding they need more provincial support, “especially if the expectation is that we’re going to lead the response.”
Lum mentioned his frustrations with the sluggish provincial response to their EOC’s top-priority requests.
On Nov. 30 he pleaded for help from the province, publicly stating the current system of approvals is “broken,” and their requests went unanswered for days.
At the time, there were 50 emergency requests pending approval by Emergency Management BC.
Dr. John Clague, chair of the Centre for Natural Hazard Research at Simon Fraser University, said it’s fortunate there were not more fatalities.
He said the province’s ability to deploy cellular pings to warn people in at-risk areas, the Alert Ready emergency system, has been around for “quite some time.”
Washington State and other Canadian provinces have used this system in severe weather events for years, and Clague said he doesn’t understand why B.C. doesn’t.
He called the cellular warnings “pretty elementary stuff” for one of the more disaster-prone provinces, and it’s already used for tsunami and earthquake alerts.
The province may be reluctant to “cry wolf” too many times and have the warnings be disregarded, Clague speculates.
In disaster scenarios, local governments should be sending local information to the province, which in turn should be a coordinating agency to better link municipalities and resources, according to Clague.
“I just see a persistent lack of communication between municipal groups, and it’s not their fault,” he said. “What can you expect a small municipality to do? How much horsepower do they have in a situation like that?”
Following the heat dome that killed nearly 600 people over the summer, the province made promises to expand the Alert Ready system. Following the floods, Minister of Public Safety Mike Farnworth said he’ll revamp B.C.’s emergency law by next year.
The problem with any kind of cellular-warning system for the FVRD, according to Lum, is there are large areas in the jurisdiction that don’t even receive cell service.
The FVRD, the City of Mission, and the District of Hope all use Alertable, an app designed to send out emergency warnings that can be set to your local area.
All three frequently encourage their residents to use the app, but it requires the end user to download it, and again, requires cell service.
When properties along Othello Road were being swept away, residents were seeking help, advice, and any information available as many were cut off physically and had few ways to communicate.
Some expressed anger at the District of Hope for a lack of warning, unaware the area wasn’t their jurisdiction.
The situation in the FVRD was also complicated by overlapping areas of authorities, according to Lum, which includes the regional district, neighbouring municipalities, local improvement districts, and private infrastructure.
He said he’s very concerned about when the Fraser River starts to rise in the spring, and most of his attention from now until June is geared toward fixing the response issues.
Lum said Minister Farnworth travelled to the FVRD for a “very productive meeting” about the challenges they face on Dec. 10.
“The operative word here is to take action, we don’t need to do a bunch more studies,” He said. “Time is not our friend. That’s what I worry about.”