Search and Rescue
Mother Nature is holding her breath. And all of BC is poised to see if she exhales into spring slowly and gently, or if her pent-up energy is released in a violent blast.
By the time this article is published, the spring freshet, or annual spring snowmelt, will be upon us. With record snowfall across BC this winter, the chance of widespread flooding is exceptionally high.
Our region is cradled within the Nechako and Skeena River watersheds. As of April 1, the snowpack in the Skeena-Bulkley system was a staggering 151% of normal (since 1948, when the province started recording snowpack levels), and an even more impressive 160 percent of normal in the Nechako basin. This “loaded gun” has emergency responders fearing what could be the worst flooding since 1948. From Prince George in the east, right through the Bulkley Valley to Prince Rupert at the mouth of the Skeena, thousands of people and homes, farms, bridges, roads and sections of railway are in the danger zone.
Record high snowpack does not necessarily mean that there will be flooding; whether there is or not depends entirely on the weather. However, one of the factors that increases flood risk is cooler-than-normal spring temperatures (which, at the time of this writing, has been the pattern so far this year). If this is followed in late May or early June by high temperatures and rain…watch out!
In the Bulkley Valley, the flood readiness team includes police and fire departments, search and rescue (SAR), municipalities, First Nations and the regional district. This year the Canadian military is part of the “machine” gearing up to help, as well as the Initial Attack fire-fighting crews, which will be hiring extra personnel to ensure that there are people left to fight fires in the event that some crews are required for sand-bagging and flood control.
“When a flood hits a populated area, it’s more than one agency can handle,” says Randy Dykstra, president of Bulkley Valley Search and Rescue (BVSAR). “SAR is part of the Provincial Emergency Program and our role is to assist local emergency responders when human lives are at risk. We can’t afford to say we weren’t ready.”
On average, the volunteer members of BVSAR respond to 10-15 callouts each year, with one year peaking at 22 calls. In a flooding situation, SAR will be asked to provide safety at major sandbagging initiatives, assist with the movement of people and vehicles in flooded areas, and respond to any reports of people in the river. This workload is currently handled by only 20 core volunteers, with another 20 or so “auxiliary volunteers” who can be called upon as needed. Most are generalists with a broad range of skills, but others are members of specialty teams with high levels of specific training.
If flooding does happen, the people who will work closest to rising rivers, and often on or in the water itself, are members of the swiftwater rescue team. Headed by Walter Bucher of Smithers-based Raven Rescue, these moving water and flood specialists are BVSAR’s secret weapon against flood casualties.
Flooding, even when serious, is usually insidious, creeping up slowly and often unnoticed until it is too late to do anything to protect personal property, evacuate livestock, etc. Humans are famous for being unresponsive when the threat is gradual.
“Our primary focus is keeping people safe,” says Bucher. “But given that one third of all victims in moving-water drownings are would-be rescuers, we have to consider the safety of emergency personnel as paramount, because if a life is lost trying to save someone else, it becomes a double-tragedy.”
To reduce the risk to rescuers, it helps to have a population that is well informed and well prepared. “Hopefully people will listen, understand that this year’s flood threat is real and potentially precedent-setting, and take personal responsibility,” Dykstra adds.
BVSAR offers this checklist that to minimize the impacts of a flood:
Evaluate your personal risk before flood season. If you live, farm or own a business on low-lying property, take special precautions including: – build permanent or sandbag dykes well in advance of high water; – move valuables to a second floor or another location; – move hazardous materials including gas and oil, lawn and garden chemicals, paints and solvents etc.; – ensure pets and livestock will be safe, including moving them in advance of flood season if necessary, as it may be impossible to move them after an evacuation order is given.
Be prepared to be entirely self-sufficient for up to 72 hours with necessary emergency supplies. In a major flood, it may take several days before emergency personnel are able to reach everyone who needs help, as they attend to those in desperate need.
Stay away from river and creek banks. Flooding often undercuts the shoreline, and banks can collapse unexpectedly and sweep people into fast-moving water.
Never enter moving water to rescue pets or possessions. Remember, one-third of drowning victims are would-be rescuers.
Never, ever tie a rope to yourself when entering moving water. If you lose your balance the rope will make your body act like a fishing lure, and you will be unable to resurface.
Never drive a car through moving water in excess of 8” deep (12” for a big four-wheel drive pickup). That’s all it takes to quickly swamp a vehicle, float it, and sweep it away.
The best strategy is to stay away from the river entirely. “In spring flood, a river is a killing machine,” says Bucher. It’s become a common refrain of his over the years. “There are 200-foot cottonwoods cartwheeling down the river, the water is moving at an incredible speed, running over its banks and crashing through willows—and it’s very, very cold because it’s snowmelt. Someone who ends up in the river doesn’t stand much chance of coming out alive.”
But sometimes keeping people safe means being very unpopular. “The desire of people to stay behind and protect their property from a threat is incredibly strong,” acknowledges Bucher. “If the emergency co-ordinator decides that an area must be evacuated, the RCMP, fire department and SAR will work together to assist people and ensure that it happens safely. It will mean leaving homes, possessions and livestock behind at the drop of a hat, but human lives come first.”
And if emergency personnel tell you to evacuate, GO! “One of the major lessons learned in the Hurricane Katrina disaster was that people who stay behind exponentially increase the risk to rescuers who have to go back into danger zones to rescue those that refused to go when told,” says Bucher.
With all the planning, training and exercising that has been undertaken over the last several years, BC is now recognized as a leader in emergency management and BVSAR is one of the most dedicated and best-trained teams in the province. But with backcountry recreation steadily increasing, and the growing potential for more severe weather events linked to global warming, the workload for volunteer search and rescue teams is expected to increase.
In the Bulkley Valley, 25,000 people live in a region characterized by diverse and difficult terrain, and it’s a constant challenge for BVSAR. There are similar, dedicated SAR teams in Prince George, Terrace and Prince Rupert.
“When a child is missing, a canoe upturned, or a hunter overdue, the strength of our communities is evident in how willing we are to help each other,” Bucher says, in what has become another of his well-known refrains: giving back to one’s community.
“There’s nothing better than knowing that you’ve helped the people who mean the most to you.”
To find out about volunteering with BVSAR, contact Randy Dykstra at 846-9221 or check out their website at www.bvsar.com. For more information on emergency preparedness see the Provincial Emergency Program’s information at www.pep.bc.ca
If you require search and rescue services, call-outs must be initiated through the RCMP at 847-3233.