Flood Zone

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I’ve been away for two weeks fighting floods in the northwest of British Columbia.

That’s my job in this era of my life: I work in flood hazard management for the province of BC.  Most of the time it’s office work with a small leavening of field time.  Occasionally though, when the snow stacks deep in the mountains or the rains fall heavy for days at a time, our small work group must go out where the flood waters rise, and report and recommend possible responses. 

bulkleytelkwa.jpgWe coordinate our activities with a provincial emergency response centre and try to give the decision makers the information they need in situations where residents and local authorities are often panicking, or shouting for resources, or just intensely focused on saving their homes.

The protection provided by dikes built on the edges of the fierce rivers of the province, built in many cases decades earlier as the result of earlier floods, are part of our concern.

Are trees swept down the river knocking off the riprap rock that protects the dikes?  Are the dikes high enough?  Will internal flaws cause them to breach?  Is water seeping out the other side uncontrollably?  Are they being outflanked by rising waters?

The snow in the mountains of the headwaters of the Skeena River, and the Telkwa and Morice Rivers, which feed into the Bulkley, which in turn swells the Skeena, was the most this winter since such records were first kept.  However, these records extend only back to the first half of the 1900s, giving an idea of how young this province is for the white man.  The name “Skeena,” by the way, means River of the Mist in the native Tsimshian.

The valleys where the rivers threatened the towns and hamlets of Quick and Telkwa, Smithers and Terrace, are also where I was fortunate enough to grow up.

The Fraser River, the only river in the province larger than the Skeena, also had serious flood potential due to major snowpack.  Its huge basin affects, of course, all the metropolitan centres to the south.  Another part of our workgroup was committed there.  Our little band, though, was destined for the northwest where, although the population was less, the potential for serious flooding was greater.

hwy16exstewcnrkm112.jpgThe rivers began to rise.  Our group flew up to the north.  I went ahead to Terrace on the Skeena to help coordinate our people in the field from the provincial emergency response centre. 

We had heard that most of the motels in the area were full with an influx of workers for the annual refitting and repair of a pulp and paper mill.  With some trepidation, I was told I’d be staying at the Costa Lessa Motel, which I assumed cost less.   I arrived to find its large signs adorned with cactus and palm trees in this northwestern rain forest, and to have my registration taken by a tough looking woman with one arm named Holly.  Unfortunately for what could have been a really interesting story, the motel was well-kept and Holly most pleasant.

hwy16eastkm198.jpgTwo or three days of hot weather combined with a following rain shot the rivers upward from an already high base.  Lowlying areas began to be threatened and then overwhelmed by water.  The water kept rising:  residences and barns began to be flooded, banks were eroded, last ditch sandbag defenses were mounted.    The fear grew of a repeat of the 1936 flooding on the Skeena where entire houses were swept down the river.  There began to be hoarding of food and fuel.

160_bc_flood2_070606.jpgThe City of Terrace became cut off as both directions of highway were flooded by the Skeena.  Even the railroad was overwhelmed, as water forced ballast out from under the tracks.  A gas pipeline was broken, fibre optic communications were severed.  Evacuations were ordered and road checkpoints set up to keep people out.

And then the unseasonably cool weather settled in.  One day, two.  The rivers reached their crest and began, very slowly to fall back.  The freakishly cool weather continues today, 10 days or so later, with the rivers dropped swiftly from their heights, and myself back at home for a couple of days.  There’s still much snow in the mountains, and so the rivers might easily roar back and force our return.

rainbowterrace.jpgThe weather was mercurial, unsettled, the last couple of days before I returned.  One evening, in the slanting of the sun’s last rays, appeared one of the most intense rainbows I’ve ever seen.  One can’t make too much of such things, but a rainbow is always a blessing. 

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4 Comments on “Flood Zone”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Fencer,

    Hey, I finally came for a visit. Sorry it took so long.

    Very interesting post. There’s a lot of empty space up there in BC, eh? Cool. I’ve traveled a bit in the western US and some in Ontario and Quebec, but I’ve never been out that way.

    I’ll be back – lots of interesting stuff here – pretty cerebral for the likes of me though :)

    MDW

  2. fencer Says:

    Thanks for dropping by!

    BC is pretty big… flying over, one sees mountain range after mountain range…

    Regards

  3. Eliza D Says:

    Hmmm…that’s an interesting account. I’d be interested to hear more on your flood management system.

    We get floods here every year, too, and our capital recently experienced flash floods. Measures are in place, but they never seem to be enough.

    Our East Coast is most affected but this year, our southern parts were submerged in what was termed the worst floods in decades, and it was weeks before flood victims could return to their homes (for those who still had them).

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    We have floods in BC every year, but some years threaten more than others…

    Our flooding has either to do with snow melt in spring and early summer, or with fall events when the rains come in and go on and on, usually on top of some snow which also melts.

    There are dikes and protective measures, but people rely on them too much in their thinking and planning. The rivers will flood eventually more than you’ve anticipated.

    Are floods in Malaysia associated with a monsoon season or something like that?

    Regards


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