One person is dead and at least two others are missing after a mudslide swept over the Duffey Lake Road section of Highway 99 north of Pemberton on Monday morning.
Crews were called at around noon on Nov. 15 after several vehicles were caught up in the mudslide 42 kilometres south of Lillooet, said Pemberton Search and Rescue (SAR) manager David MacKenzie. When the team of 24 arrived on-scene, "there was certainly a debris field that had come down and blocked off the highway access," he said.
Rescuers have recovered at least one person from the wreckage as of Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 16, MacKenzie told Pique, and managed to locate about seven vehicles.
Crews worked until dark on Monday, before returning to the scene Tuesday morning. The search efforts remain ongoing.
"Water's a pretty powerful source," MacKenzie said. "There were broken-up trees, boulders, mud—I mean, there's just a tremendous amount of mud and debris that comes down in a slide like that."
The RCMP confirmed Tuesday that SAR crews located and extricated the body of one woman, a Lower Mainland resident, from the debris late Monday night. The BC Coroners Service has launched an investigation into the circumstances surrounding her death.
Police have not yet confirmed how many people or vehicles remain unaccounted for, but acknowledged that investigators have received two missing-people reports. Officials believe other occupied vehicles may have been lost in the slide, said BC RCMP Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet in a release.
"We are asking anyone who was a witness to the event, or believes their loved one is missing and has not yet been able to make contact with them to contact the Pemberton or Lillooet RCMP Detachments," she added.
The tragedy comes amid heavy rains that swept through southwest B.C. over the weekend, causing severe flooding and extensive damage throughout the province. The entire city of Merritt was placed under evacuation order, while a series of mudslides, rockslides and washouts have closed all highways leading out of the Lower Mainland in both directions. Hundreds of people were rescued by helicopter Monday after becoming trapped overnight between two landslides on Highway 7 between Agassiz and Hope.
According to Drive BC, Highway 99 remains closed between Lil'wat Place—nine km north of Pemberton— and Seton Lake Road for 81.9 km. An estimated time of reopening is not available, while the next update is expected to come at 6 p.m. on Wednesday. Paula Cousins, regional executive director for the Ministry of Transportation's Southern Interior Regional Office said during a Tuesday afternoon media briefing that motorists could expect the road to remain closed for "at least a few days."
As crews work to assess and clean-up the damage throughout B.C., "people should just stay put," said MacKenzie.
"The highways people have big jobs to do, whether it's the Coquihalla or [Highway] 5 or getting the Duffey back reopened," he added. "It's going to take a little bit of time, obviously, to clear those up and get things going again."
Asked during the media briefing why that section of Highway 99 was kept open to drivers Monday, B.C. public safety minister Mike Farnworth said, "Travel advisories in terms of DriveBC regularly update the conditions on highways. People travel for a variety of reasons, many of them essential.
"That is why it is important in terms of if you’re going out to check with DriveBC, to check on the highway conditions before proceeding out.”
Pemberton was pummelled by 50.9 millimetres of rain Monday, adding to the 39.5 mm that fell on Sunday. Lillooet, meanwhile, saw 27.8 mm of rain fall on Sunday before receiving a further 33.8 mm on Monday, making it the rainiest Nov. 14 and 15 on record.
-With files from Alanna Kelly and Wayne Moore, Castanet