AGASSIZ, B.C. — Nearly 300 people trapped overnight in their vehicles following mudslides on a British Columbia highway are being airlifted out to safety while an assessment is underway to determine if others may have ended up in the flow of debris from torrential rain.
Twelve people had been rescued from Highway 7 near Agassiz by the local fire department on Sunday evening before the Vancouver Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team was called in on Monday.
“Trapped between two slides are approximately 275 additional people, including 50 children, who were advised to shelter in place overnight as debris was unstable and unsafe to cross,” the City of Vancouver and Canada Task Force 1 said in a joint release.
It says the team was joined by Chilliwack Search and Rescue and a geotechnical engineer to survey the area for anyone who may be trapped in the debris.
“The current operational priority is evacuating those trapped between the slides, and Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopters are starting the first of multiple rescue flights between the slide area and a reception centre in Agassiz,” the release says.
The bright yellow Cormorant chopper was seen dropping people off near the Agassiz community centre on Monday before taking off for another rescue trip.
“The commendable efforts of Agassiz Fire Department last night in treacherous conditions was key to saving those trapped in their vehicles, which were filling with debris and water,” the joint release said.
The mudslides rolled over the highway during an “atmospheric river” that brought a deluge of rain to parts of the province and forced an evacuation order in the Interior town of Merritt on Monday.
Melanie Forsythe was travelling from Vancouver to her home in Prince George with her boyfriend and a buddy when they were caught between the slides and forced to spend a night on Highway 7.
“The visibility was nil in the middle of the day because the rain was coming down so hard,” she said.
“There are people here that are lacking insulin, and there are children,” she said, adding some people are offering diapers for babies.
“I feel scared, but at least we’re safe in a vehicle. We’re not stranded beside the river in a vehicle.”
Forsythe and her party were rescued Monday afternoon.
Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said expected high winds may make rescue efforts on Highway 7 challenging.
“They will be doing everything they can to ensure that they reach people who are trapped in their vehicles between those slides as quickly as possible,” Farnworth said.
The City of Merritt issued an evacuation order for its population, about 7,000 people, saying residents could not use water from faucets or flush toilets.
“The floodwaters have now inundated two bridges across the Coldwater River, and floodwaters prevent access to the third,” the city said in a release.
“Continued habitation of the community without sanitary services presents risk of mass sewage backup and personal health risk.”
Residents without a place to stay were told to head to Kamloops or Kelowna and requested that all gas stations remain open for those leaving the town.
“For your own safety, you must now leave Merritt,” Mayor Linda Brown said in the release. “Please offer help to your friends, families and neighbours. Drive safely and take care of yourselves.”
Paula Cousins, the Ministry of Transportation’s representative for the Interior region, said the Highway 5 corridor between Hope and Merritt remain closed Monday due to slides and falling rocks after 200 millimetres of rain fell since the weekend.
Heavy rain gave way later Monday to wind storms that could uproot trees and cause more power outages in some areas after 16,000 customers, mostly in the eastern Fraser Valley, were without electricity on Sunday.
Armel Castellan, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said wind gusts up to 90 kilometres an hour were expected for Victoria and much of the south coast and into the Interior.
“Definitely the atmospheric river will end today as it moves south, deeper into Washington state. That said, as that clearing happens, it’s going to be coming with a big shot of wind,” he said on Monday.
A local state of emergency has been declared in part of British Columbia’s eastern Fraser Valley where unrelenting rainfall caused flooding, mud and rock slides and the closure of highways to and from the southern Interior.
James Reinheller’s family home in Abbotsford is scheduled to be featured in House and Home magazine’s Christmas issue, but it was one of the first to be hit by a strong wave of water on Sunday as creeks overflowed in the neighbourhood.
Damage to some homes across the street was so severe they looked like they’d been hit by a vehicle, not water, he said.
Environment Canada said 225 millimetres of rain had deluged the community of Hope since the storm began Saturday and 180 millimetres had fallen around Agassiz and Chilliwack.
Flood warnings and watches were issued on rivers and streams for areas from Merritt south to the United States border, the lower Fraser region and sections of southern Vancouver Island.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 15, 2021.