Agassiz Fire Chief Gerald Basten said it was “truly a miracle” no lives were lost in the Agassiz area landslides and that local firefighters were uninjured following incredibly dangerous rescue operations.
Basten recently published a summary of events of the multiple perilous rescue operations he and local firefighters went through to keep everyone safe during the mid-November floods and area landslides.
Landslides in the Ruby Creek area west of Hope and near Harrison Mills, both along Highway 7, stranded hundreds of travellers in the area as rain pummelled the Fraser Valley.
The AFD was dispatched to assist a resident with flooding in a crawl space on Nov. 14, which would be the start of a very long two weeks for local rescue workers.
Two hours later, firefighters were off to assist a vehicle involved in a landslide on Rockwell Drive. Once firefighters arrived on the scene, Basten said there were multiple reports of slides, including a report of a vehicle stuck in the debris. There were no injuries. By 7:30 p.m., firefighters made their way to Highway 7 east of Agassiz near Seabird Island; the caller was washed off the road and over an embankment.
From there, Basten said the situation escalated sharply. Multiple calls reported several vehicles caught in the landslide, people trapped in their vehicles, hydro wires down on top of vehicles and some vehicles on fire. The AFD and Seabird Island Fire Department responded to the scene, encountering a landslide that spilled across the road and almost to the railroad tracks.
“Due to the numerous 911 calls…it was difficult to gain an accurate understanding of the magnitude of the slide, and the number of vehicles and people involved,” Basten wrote. While Hope Search and Rescue was able to assist, Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue efforts were significantly limited when a number of volunteers were stranded due to landslides along Rockwell Drive. BC Hydro tended to the downed power lines.
While the AFD as developing a rescue plan for the first landslide, two more landslides came down the mountain behind the rescuers. Basten said the AFD and other emergency crews had to evacuate, setting up at the Seabird Island Gas Bar. Meanwhile, more 911 calls came in.
“ Many of the calls became pleas for help as their vehicles were quickly filling with water,” Basten wrote. “Two more 911 calls reported medical emergencies for people that were trapped. It was clear that rescue efforts could not be delayed.”
Local firefighters primarily worked on the Harrison Mills-are slide while HSAR assisted near Ruby Creek. The AFD banded together as conditions deteriorated rapidly, forming a chain of 19 AFD firefighters rescuing nine trapped motorists, forming a chain and passing the rescued from firefighter to firefighter. Combined with near-freezing rain and floodwater, the mud was thick and acted like quicksand, carrying rock and trees that were up to two metres in diameter.
By 2 a.m., rescue workers successfully evacuated all the stranded motorists in the area.
“The rescue was truly a coordinated effort between BC Hydro, (B.C. Ambulance Service) and AFD!” Basten wrote. “It is unlikely that many of the rescued would have survived the night in those conditions.”
Three Canadian Armed Forces helicopters lifted nearly 300 travellers to safety to the Agricultural Hall, where Kent-Harrison Emergency Support Services offered overnight lodging and help.
Basten said each day, waters receded locally, which meant more vehicles to check. The AFD checked vehicle after vehicle for seven days.
The next day, Nov. 15, crews were packing up for the day at 6 p.m. when a barn fire was reported. Firefighters responded to the one-room fire while other firefighters ere dispatched to a minor crash on Morrow Road. That evening, there was a structure fire on Hot Springs Road, which the AFD quickly doused.
Basten called the week following the floods a “frenzy of activity” as the AFD worked to restock and clean the equipment.