March 05, 2015 Features & Images » Feature Story

Learning to live with natural hazards 

Experience, action and looking afterourselves in Sea to Sky country

click to flip through (10) STORY BY RICK CROSBY - Learning to live with natural hazards Experience, action and looking after ourselves in sea to sky country.
  • story by Rick Crosby
  • Learning to live with natural hazards Experience, action and looking after ourselves in sea to sky country.

When the Sea to Sky corridor's Mount Meager erupted 2,400 years ago the effects were devastating.

"The ash layer can be found across central B.C. and into Alberta," says Melanie Kelman, a volcanologist with Natural Resources Canada.

And although there has not been a major volcanic eruption in the Pemberton/Whistler area since Mount Meager blew, another eruption is inevitable, adds Kelman, though "On a geological time scale it may not erupt for another 20,000 years.

"Mount Meager is still potentially active. There's geothermal heating in the area."

There would, however, she assures us, be a lot of warning before an eruption.

"We would have several months of warning when we could install additional monitoring and try to forecast what was going to happen," Kelman explains.  

This is a small comfort to Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who also identifies earthquakes, interface fire, interception of water supply, and snowstorms as having a high-hazard rating.

The possibility of wildfires is particularly disquieting, says Wilhelm-Morden.   

"One reason is we're obviously set in the forest and we've got one highway in and out," she says. "Also there's a lot of activity in the backcountry, so if there was an interface fire in Whistler we would be very, very concerned."

Like other communities in the Sea to Sky corridor, the Resort Municipality Of Whistler (RMOW) has a comprehensive emergency program to deal with large-scale emergencies, but this may not be enough.

Between Dec. 23 and 27, 1980, Whistler experienced "unusually high" seasonal temperatures. The freezing level rose to 2,000 metres, triggering some debris flows and river torrents.

Adding to the concern about rising temperatures and the possible threat to ski resorts is the fact that over the past 50 years in most of British Columbia the average nightly low temperature in the middle of winter has increased at least two degrees Celsius in the mountains near the coast, and up to five degrees in parts of the Rockies, according to Dr. John Pomeroy, a Canadian Research Chair in Water Resources and Climate Change, quoted in a recent Globe and Mail article.

Fifty years might suggest that natural variability is minutely responsible for climate change. This is probably not so. Dr. John Clague, professor in the Department of Earth Sciences at Simon Fraser University, reminds us that the residence time of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is probably at least a century, so even if we were to stabilize CO2 concentration at the present level, about 400 parts per million (ppm), we would still be locked in to an average global atmosphere warming of two to four degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

"Of course, we cannot possibly stabilize atmospheric CO2 at 400 ppm, so the temperature increase will be larger," Clague states.

A warmer atmosphere will hold more moisture, but it is uncertain what affect that warmer atmosphere will have on atmospheric and ocean circulation, which are responsible for the regional and local climate.    

"One suggestion is that any increase in the intensity, or frequency, of cyclonic storms spawned in the North Pacific, or in the frequency of so-called Pineapple Express rainfall events, would result in an increase in flooding, rock falls and debris flows in our part of the world," Clague continues. "There is, however, a lot of uncertainty in such forecasts."

Uncertainty or not, the threat of natural hazards in the Sea to Sky is ever present.

These can include floods, landslides earthquakes and near the top of the list, wildfire.

Last spring in Whistler a program was reintroduced that allows limited backyard burning for garden debris twice a year.

"We were concerned that people were not actually getting rid of their garden debris, that they were just kind of storing it on their property and building their fuel source," Wilhelm-Morden continues.

In order to get a permit homeowners are required to have a member of the local firefighting services come to their property and inspect where they intend to burn and make sure it's safe. The program also includes a quick fire-smart lesson to help residents plan their garden trimming from trees and shrubs.

"We did it at our home," Wilhelm-Morden says. "The fire fighters were really good, and told us some things that we may think about as far as landscaping interacts are concerned.

"It's difficult to say whether local weather events will be in the context of drier seasons or wetter seasons, hotter or colder, we just don't know. As we gather more information and as things evolve, the RMOW's plans are going to change to accommodate that."

This comes too late for two residents of Tapley's Farm. On Wednesday, Dec. 10, 70.3 millimetres of rain fell in Whistler, breaking a record set in 1998. The rain caused the Crabapple Creek to breach its banks, flooding at least two local homes. One victim was informed by the RMOW that the waterway is the responsibility of the province, and while some assistance is possible, the B.C. government disaster fund doesn't cover second homes.

"There's a further restriction as well," Wilhelm-Morden explains. "If you have received provincial funding for flooding in the past, you don't meet the criteria for additional funding. Now, I know that from time to time the province makes exceptions for those criteria. I don't know if they make exceptions for the second-home criterion."  

Wilhelm-Morden explains that the relative small size of Crabapple Creek meant that nobody predicted it would react the way it did.

Go for a walk along one of the old logging roads in the relatively flat terrain above the Sea to Sky Highway in Howe Sound after a heavy rain event and you can see what happens to these small creeks. They become torrents. Concerns were voiced in December about what the RWOW is going to do about preventing flooding from happening again in Taplyey's. Wilhelm-Morden reports that money has been put aside in the budget for 2015 for the Tapley's and Whistler Cay areas for flood mitigation purposes.

"If there are creeks that do have the potential for this kind of activity, certainly staff will be looking at them. It's Crabapple Creek and the Tapley's Farm area that we'll be looking at this year."             

Where that funding comes from may be a concern in the future. Wilhelm-Morden recalls a meeting of the council in 2012, following a presentation on hazard risk and vulnerability assessment mandated by the provincial government, at which federal funding for training for emergency preparedness was cancelled.

"We had been applying for and receiving that funding annually and using it for training and emergency equipment purchases," Wilhelm-Morden explains. "When we heard that it had been cancelled we did write a letter to the Ministry of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness and asked the federal government to reinstate that funding."

The funding was not reinstated. But council chose to continue training personnel for emergency operations anyway.

"Just because federal funding disappeared we were not going to walk away from being prepared for emergencies," Wilhelm-Morden says. "But this is classic downloading."

Wilhelm-Morden has been meeting with other mayors in British Columbia at the BC Mayors Caucus since 2012 to discuss the issue of downloading. The value of these bi-annual meetings is to define what the core services are for Whistler and what kind of sustainable revenue sources may be available for municipalities. So far, municipalities have not received the revenue tools that are needed.

"We continue to press both the provincial and federal levels of government to pay attention," Wilhelm-Morden says. "It's important because as recently as (early December) we had flooding events here in Whistler. We need the tools to be able to deal with emergencies."  

The way things are shaping up, emergency situations are going to happen perhaps sooner than the money and tools are there to deal with them.

"That's the thing," Wilhelm-Morden continues. "The funding that was cut by the federal government was critical stuff. It was for training and emergency equipment. These are tools that local communities need."

Pemberton's seen it before

Flooding is the natural hazard residents of the Pemberton Valley are most concerned about.

"Fire and severe weather are also risks," Bettina Falloon, executive assistant/emergency program coordinator for Pemberton says.

A joint Emergency Management BC Defense Research and Development Canada Community Resilience study done by Serco Consulting in 2012-2013 provided a snapshot of people living in the Pemberton Valley and their preparedness for emergencies. The 6,000 residents include farmers, a mix of rural and urban residents and First Nations.

"Farmers certainly feel as if they're very well prepared," Falloon continues. "They have resources in place whether it's wood burning fireplaces or barbecues. First Nations tend to resort to their cultural background and village residents rely more on local government."

The study determined that only three days' worth of food is commercially available, stockpiles of medical supplies are not available, the needs of vulnerable populations during a disaster are unclear and better procedures are required when coordinating and communicating plans. Personal preparedness is a tough one.

"That's always a struggle that I think a lot of emergency coordinators find within their jurisdictions," Falloon reiterates.

The Community Resilience Pilot Study looked at what might happen if the one road in and out of the Pemberton Valley were inaccessible. In 2003, when the Rutherford and Lillooet Rivers flooded, access to Pemberton and Lillooet was cut off for a week.

"They actually flew in a container that provided food and medicine," Falloon recounts.

Most importantly, the study defined an approach that helps small communities that struggle with limited emergency management resources in a hazardous landscape.

One thing that's happened is that when people in their communities in the Sea to Sky corridor directly experience an impact from a severe weather event they become more aware. Falloon agrees with other emergency program coordinators — knowing that they've been through this before makes a difference.

"I think everyone has that heightened awareness when the rains occurs," she says.

SLRD's vast profile a challenge

In the Squamish Lillooet Regional District (SLRD), an area incorporating 16,000-square kilometres from Squamish to Pavilion, the hazards are land movement, rockslides and forest fires.

"What's interesting about the Sea to Sky corridor is that you're taking in a huge number of different hazards," Ryan Wainwright, emergency program manager for the SLRD, says. "Being a remote rural district means the challenges are very different from an area that can be prepared."

Wainwright's jurisdiction covers 31 communities in the SLRD. These are communities that don't have their own municipal councils and service infrastructure. The regional district is their political entity.

"The challenges are (all about) access," Wainwright continues. "A remote community could be 45 minutes from the nearest centre. Some of them are not serviced by cell phones. There are landlines only."   

Communities in Area A that are accessed through Lillooet or Road 40 are particularly vulnerable.  

"That's a road that's prone to hazards," Wainwright says. "There's very little infrastructure, so if an evacuation is required folks will have to leave, whereas in a larger urban centre people can be accommodated within their own community."

A lot of homesteaders in the area have livestock — which is their livelihood, and the residents will often stand by their property in the face of an emergency rather than leave their animals and stock.

"Especially where fire is concerned," Wainwright says. "If we require an evacuation order in an area, we're only going to see 25 to 50 per cent compliance."

Regional districts can't tax and spend the way that a municipality can and this affects the level of service.

 "If we want anything other than the absolute basic program, which is funded by the province, we have to create a service for that for a particular area," Wainwright explains. "We can't make bylaws for the entire regional district to provide emergency services. I'm actually funded through the budget of each electoral area."

Wainwright's job is to look after and transition those people that have been impacted from a response phase to a recovery phase. There's a four-kilometre radius around a community for an active fire.

"Because we have such a strong wildfire management branch provincially there's a threshold of criteria for letting local emergency officials know when a community is going to be potentially impacted," says Wainright.

He is not surprised by the findings of a recent B.C. forest ministry paper that sounds the alarm about mega fires. What people in his field are concerned about is that hazards that previously applied to rural communities should now be the focus of more urban centers.

"As emergency managers we already stress the responsibility that people have to look after themselves and their families," Wainwright continues. "The Fire Smart Program really encourages people to do that. The Wildfire Management Branch has just taken over as the lead provincial agency for the Fire Smart Program, but essentially the only people that can prevent interface fires are the homeowners."      

This process allows the Emergency Management British Columbia Program to move in resources, get a community organized and develop and communicate a plan before moving into an evacuation phase.

"Then it's a question of how the firefighting effort goes and whether there's an impact to the built community," Wainwright says.

There is a system whereby local communities and municipalities have their response costs 100 per cent covered. This is a provincial plan for a wide spectrum of hazards and emergencies. (Interestingly the plan does not cover civil disorder emergencies.)

"In the Sea to Sky corridor we're inter-operable," Wainwright says. "Any of my staff can go to Whistler and work on an event there, and any Whistler staff can come to Pemberton. In Lillooet we would be co-located with the folks that work with the District of Lillooet."

Responding to a natural disaster in the Sea to Sky corridor is a massive undertaking.

"With the exception of Whistler and Squamish, we're dealing with local governments that are very shallow in their human resource pool," Wainwright says. "If we're looking at flipping over to a 24/7 operation my staff is essentially exhausted at the end of that first 24-, 36-hour period."

Squamish natural threats never far away

The New York Times recently designated Squamish as a top place to visit in 2015.

With amazing outdoor recreation, a temperate climate, a location only 45 minutes from Vancouver, it has everything to offer.

It also faces some of the most worrisome natural hazards from flooding, to severe weather and wildfires, and even the release of the Garibaldi barrier.

But the Squamish Emergency Program has a well-organized emergency operation centre in place that keeps pace with the threats and the community's growing population.  

"We're looking for new ways to work together with new groups," says Alexis Kraig, the District of Squamish's (DOS) emergency program coordinator.

This involves recruiting different volunteer groups and figuring out ways to work together to provide resources for emergency management that involves all stakeholders. Staff is trained within the district to have an emergency management background.

"We have to have an emergency plan and do a hazard-risk analysis," Kraig continues. "We have a huge volunteer component that entails search and rescue, marine search and rescue, emergency social services and a communications group. We're always coordinating with our external partners including the RCMP, BC Ambulance and the Ministry of Health."

Instant command system vests hang on one wall of the Emergency Operations Centre a kilometre north of Squamish off Highway 99 — each colour represents a command system; blue for planning, orange for operations, yellow for logistics, red for incident command, green for the director and grey for finance. Four black boards used to organize operations adorn the other walls. Rows of desks equipped with computer terminals are ready for different teams to coordinate support.     

"Squamish is quite spread out and the best thing we can do is to be prepared for these events," Kraig continues. 

Going out into the community and explaining how each resident can make a difference is a crucial part of the plan. Representatives from the Neighbourhood Program, a group of resident citizens that promote emergency preparedness, as well as do activities to prepare their neighbourhood for emergencies, are a big help.

"Some communities will have a container to put supplies in, or citizens give presentations to help their neighbours out," Kraig says. "It's based on the premise that when an event happens it's going to be your community, and your neighbours, that most likely will be the first to respond. It's people from the neighbourhood helping each other."

Still, there's no way to quantify how prepared people will be in the face of a natural disaster.

"I would say that one thing in Squamish we're (fortunate to have), is that we've had experience with disasters," Kraig continues. "In 2006 there was the railway derailment and in 2003 the floods. People are very resilient. We understand that we can be cut off, and so people know how to prepare themselves."

Nothing can prepare people for a catastrophic event, however, like the collapse of the barrier, a natural rock-wall dam containing Garibaldi lake on one side.

In 1981 the residents of Garibaldi had their properties expropriated when the provincial government deemed the area unsafe because of the instability of the barrier in the face of volcanic and tectonic activity or heavy rainfall. In the summer of that year at a gathering outside Alpine Lodge to listen to B.C. cabinet member Alan Williams deliver the news, most locals scoffed at the notion. That October a 100-year rainstorm event turned the Cheakamus River into a ditch.

Dr. Steve Quane, professor of geology at Quest University, Squamish is studying Garibaldi Lake and the barrier. The concern is that if the barrier came down Squamish could be wiped out. According to a recent story in the Squamish Chief, Quest student, Greyson Herdman, who has also been hired by the DOS to write a new flood report and examine the various water hazards the district faces, believes that if the barrier broke the wave produced by one trillion litres of water flowing out of Garibaldi Lake down to Squamish would be 120 metres high.

Howe Sound faces its own threats

On Thursday, Jan. 22 clouds, like prancing white horses, frolic above the sunshine-splashed mountains in Howe Sound. The unseasonably spring-like weather is a far cry from what happened on Monday, Oct. 22, 2014 when a debris flow came down Harvey Creek taking out a water intake servicing Lions Bay.  

"We'd been operating on one of our two water intakes for the last month and we had just lifted our water restrictions on Monday, December 1st," Mandy Koonts, chief administrative officer for the Village of Lions Bay, recounted.

The slide happened overnight. Emails went out. Public notices went up in the post office

"We had to restrict water access for everybody," Koonts continues. "We had to use a boil water advisory because with the rain that ensued after the slide the turbidity of the water was at an increased level. The boil water (advisory) was on for three weeks."

The slump was 30 metres wide and 200 metres long.  

"It was just like quicksand up there," Koonts says. "I couldn't send guys up to start remediation work for 10 days after the slide occurred."

Adding to the hazard of debris flows in Lions Bay was a warning in a front-page story in the Vancouver Sun on Thursday, Dec. 4, that documented the findings of the BC Forest Ministry paper about the province's ability to fight more extreme forest fires. The story emphasized that fire prevention should become the province's top priority, and that wild-land, urban interface fuel reduction and landscape fire management may be the only protection from forest fires. Lions Bay has 1,350 residents and a volunteer fire department. The community relies on the snow pack for its water supply.

"That water is for fire protection in our own village," Koonts says.

A hike up to Deeks Lake on Tuesday, Jan. 20 was unsettling. There was only about 30 centimetres of snow at the lake, which is 930 metres above sea level, between Lions Bay and Porteau. The snow may still come to the mountains in the lower end of Howe Sound, but the low snowpack has the Village of Lions Bay considering the possibility that there may not be an adequate snowpack in the future — which could mean not enough water to fight fires.

"We think about that all the time," Lions Bay mayor Ken Buhr, says.

The nearest snow measuring devices for Howe Sound are in Squamish and the Fraser Valley.

"We need maybe as many as four snow-measuring devices in the basins above Lions Bay, so that we can start quantifying the water flows in summer from a given amount of snow pack," Buhr explains.

Lions Bay currently stores about one million U.S. gallons of treated water that's also used for fire suppression. The Village will be looking at increasing the storage capacity but the work comes with a huge price tag.

Another significant challenge is undergrowth cutback. The average house in Lions Bay is on a one-quarter, or half-acre plot of land and probably has upwards of 50 large trees on it.

While wildfire may be the simmering threat it's landslides that capture the headlines.  

Just before last Christmas tragedy struck when a creek bank above Lions Bay gave way resulting in the death of a seven-year-old girl. That incident still keeps Buhr awake at night.

"There's no good that I want to draw out of an incident like this," he says. "This is not a case of lessons to be learned, or doing things differently next time. It's a tragic loss that's going to impact a lot of people for the rest of their lives."

That tragedy and the Harvey Creek debris flow was a call to action in Lions Bay. The municipal council is in the early process of writing a request for a proposal for an infrastructure master plan that will include avalanche chutes, barriers and hardening of intake infrastructure. But this may not be enough.

"The only thing we can do as a community and as individuals is be aware that we live in an unstable, wild area," Buhr says.

Emergency Kit

Your family should be prepared to be self-sufficient for a minimum of three days, preferably one week. Emergency kits should be stored in waterproof, easy to carry and readily accessible containers or bags.

These items should be included:

• Food that won't spoil

• Non-electric can opener.

• Bottled water (4L per day per person).

• Extra prescription medications, baby supplies and special needs items.

• Lanterns, flashlight (wind-up or LED)

• Battery-operated radios, spare batteries and alternate heat sources.

• Extra, warm clothing and blankets.

• Cash (small bills and credit cards).

• First-aid kit.

• One whistle per person.

• Copy of your family emergency plan.

• Extra set of car and house keys.

• Copies of important documents (insurance, ID, prescriptions).

• Plastic garbage bags.

• Stove that does not require electricity.

• Playing cards, games and books.

• Prepare for your pet as well with;an extra collar, leash and outdoor coat, and a carrier so that you can move your pet safely and securely. Think about packing a thermal blanket and towel, its favourite chew or throw toy.

• Emergency contact information and vaccination records.

• Bottled water, dry or canned pet food for one week.

• Two bowls, a spoon, plastic lid for canned food.

• Paper towel, dish soap, disinfectant.

• Plastic bags for waste.

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