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First fires, now floods: Why B.C. is caught in a horrific dance between climate extremes


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First fires, now floods: Why B.C. is caught in a horrific dance between climate extremes

VICTORIA—As a month’s worth of rain poured down over 48 hours, the rushing Coldwater River was one of many that breached its muddy banks Monday and filled up the streets of surrounding communities in southern British Columbia as though they were part of a stoppered bathtub.

B.C. leaders are not yet saying whether the atmospheric river rainstorm is one of the largest seen in the province, but the speed with which it has wrought destruction and disruption already makes it a monumental disaster and is bringing back memories of the widespread wildfires that took place over the summer — many in the same regions now being hit by the storms.

What’s an atmospheric river? Read more from The Star.

B.C. has now within six months been a stage for both fire and flood, two disasters made more common by climate change — a dance between horrific opposing extremes.

The entire town of Merritt, B.C., home to 7,000 people, evacuated their homes Monday morning, as water from the rushing Coldwater River breached its banks and filled up the streets of surrounding communities as though they were part of a stoppered bathtub. Pictures showed RVs collapsed and half submerged by the water, and pools forming around the town’s central school.

And the destruction was not limited to any one locale.

A barge broke from its anchor amid high winds, and drifted to a downtown Vancouver beach.

Cars sloshed slowly through a foot of water on the Malahat highway near Victoria, sending waterfalls over the edge of a collapsed highway barrier.

Tons of mud slid down the steep slopes next to a busy highway in Agassiz.

A row of cabins, one of which bears a sign reading “Riverside,” had been engulfed by the Tulameen River in Princeton, another town evacuated in its entirety.

Merritt resident Ryan Yeadon was rescued by the fire department at 6 a.m. local time Monday as the entire first floor of his house became submerged in water.

Yeadon, who uses a wheelchair, was taken by boat from his front door to dry road where he was picked up by a friend. Photos show firefighters waist deep in flooding that has reached the level of Yeadon’s front porch.

Yeadon said he was in “shock” and that he “won’t be home for weeks.”

Locals of the B.C. town said they were bearing the effects of climate change for the second time in months due to the flooding. Carly Isaac sent photos to the Star with the comment “global warming” while working to help drag trucks and cars out of pits in Merritt, before getting the evacuation order to flee to either Kamloops or Kelowna, each an hour away.

To Isaac, it’s all a sign of a changing climate.

“Two months ago, we had fire alerts and orders,” Isaac wrote, “Now water is doing it.”

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said search-and-rescue teams seeking stranded drivers, as well as emergency-response personnel to help with sandbagging and flood-reduction efforts, were already working in communities from Vancouver Island to B.C.’s Interior, but that the conditions were going to get worse before they would get better.

As of Monday afternoon, every major highway into Vancouver was closed due to flooding and destruction from the rains.

Water levels, Farnworth said, were expected to rise until about 3 p.m. local time, and stay high for at least another 24 hours.

The extreme rainfall is being caused by an atmospheric river — a dense mass of water vapour clouds carrying moisture from the tropics and subtropics toward the poles, and falling as rain.

Atmospheric Rivers have long been a part of B.C.’s coastal climate, but scientists say climate change is making atmospheric rivers bigger, and more common for them to touch down in B.C. They also say what was seen Monday across southern B.C. is exactly what you would expect from a storm made more extreme by climate change.

“I’m surprised at the area affected and the significant disruptions to life in general,” said Brent Ward, co-director of the Centre for Natural Hazards Research at SFU. “This is big.”

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“What the modelling suggests is that you get more extremes, even on an annual basis,” said John Clague, Canada Research Council Chair in Natural Hazard Research at Simon Fraser University (SFU). “They’re able to show that in a warming climate we can expect more of these effects — the frequency and severity of atmospheric rivers.”

Ward said the intensity of an atmospheric river is what can make a difference between heavy rainfall and large scale destruction. In November, the grounds in coastal B.C. tend already to be wet.

“So the high intensity atmospheric river, because the ground is already wet, is enough to cause certain layers of soil to fail,” he said. That’s when you get landslides. Mudslides. Debris falls. Erosion in highways.

Another exacerbating factor is the summer’s burning.

“Where we’ve had a wildfire, we’ve burned the organic soil, we’ve reduced the vegetation and it becomes water repellent,” Ward said. “The water doesn’t infiltrate, it just flows across the landscape and triggers landslides.”

Fire crews rescued 12 people in southern British Columbia overnight — including one group of people who were reportedly trapped in their car as the waters rose around them — after mudslides and rock slides caused by relentless rain closed highways in several areas.

About 275 people remained trapped between two slides on the highway between Agassiz and Hope, B.C. Monday. A massive Canadian Forces rescue mission began Monday afternoon, using helicopters to lift those people from the area. Officials said they were not in danger, but had spent the night stuck on the highway, some running out of gas, food and water.

Dave Boone, director of the Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Task Force, said the task force had been in contact with a woman whose car was among those trapped on the highway between the two towns, and that they had asked her to advise others on the highway that they were safe and to remain in place for the time being.

Among those stuck on the highway were Paul and Pamela Deol and children Shawn, 6, and Dylan, 4, who had been on their way home to Langley on Sunday from visiting family in Kelowna, when they became trapped by the mudslides.

Luckily, they had lots of food (courtesy of Deol’s Italian mother-in-law, who they were visiting in Kelowna) and an iPad loaded with movies to keep them entertained.

“It’s fun!” one of the kids chimed in from the back, while Deol added, “They watched three movies last night, which is way over their limit.”

The City of Abbotsford opened a reception centre Sunday for residents who couldn’t get home or who had been forced to flee because of mudslides or flooding.

Gusts of wind and rain were pounding the Abbotsford Recreation Centre on Monday morning where inside an emergency support services centre was set up. Tables and chairs, some with six packs of water on them, sat empty under basketball hoops in the gymnasium as support workers held a debrief in the next room. As of early Monday afternoon, about 20 people have come through the centre, said one volunteer who wouldn’t give their name.

They have been affected by everything from floods to landslides and even stalled automobiles. The centre will be open all day.

In the Huntingdon neighbourhood of Abbotsford, fire engines and police cruisers were on almost every street, with some used as barricades to areas where the water was already too high. Curious residents meandered around to survey the damage and surmise how bad the flooding might get.

This, for many, is the front line, where the water ends and pavement begins.

Mardi Scott said she just moved into her new home in the area and now was having to leave. She wasn’t worried her house could be flooded yet, but didn’t mind the evacuation order.

“I think we’re going to be OK,” Scott said. “I think it’s overly cautious, but better to be overly cautious.”

Janice Chan, meanwhile, stood on the sidewalk eyeing the floodwaters in front of her home. There was a speck of blue sky further to the west and the rain had stopped, for now, but the water was still slowly inching toward her two-storey house.

Flooding has come close before but had stopped at the railway tracks a few blocks away, she said. But on Monday, between the early morning and late afternoon, the level kept rising.

“It’s pretty close,” Chan said, as 10 metres away her neighbour’s plastic garbage cans began to float. “I’m very worried actually, I didn’t expect this to happen. I didn’t think it would ever happen.”

With files from Steve McKinley, Jeremy Nuttall and The Canadian Press

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