Crews hope to find four people buried in landslide
A landslide struck Johnsons Landing, a tiny hamlet on the shores of Kootenay Lake roughly 70 kilometres northeast of Nelson, B.C., Thursday, July 13, 2012 severely damaging three homes. (British Columbia Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure)
Published Saturday, July 14, 2012 11:22AM EDT
Last Updated Saturday, July 14, 2012 6:23PM EDT
JOHNSON'S LANDING, B.C. -- Search and rescue teams were hoping to find four people believed buried in a massive landslide in southeastern British Columbia after initial efforts on Saturday were hampered by relentless rain overnight.
Bill MacPherson of the Central Kootenay Regional District said geotechnicians determined the area in Johnsons Landing is safe enough for about 40 crew members equipped with heavy equipment to wade through several metres of rock, mud and trees.
At least three homes were engulfed by Thursday's landslide. A father, his two grown daughters, and a female tourist from Germany have been listed as missing since then.
The search was delayed Friday until engineers were sure the pile of debris was stable enough for crews to go back in.
Searchers were also carrying avalanche beacons for their own safety.
Around midnight Friday, Forests Minister Steve Thomson issued a statement saying a ministry employee had received an email about signs of trouble in the tiny community before the slide hit.
Forests Ministry spokesman Dave Crebo said a resident who became alarmed after noticing debris in the local creek emailed neighbours at 4:56 a.m. Thursday and that one person in the group forwarded the message to a research hydrologist at the ministry at 8:47 a.m.
However, Crebo said the employee was working in the field and didn't open the email until about 11:30 a.m., about a half hour after the slide had already occurred, engulfing at least three homes.
In the email, the Johnsons Landing resident said she noticed "surges of chocolate-coloured water that came down Gar Creek," each bringing down a significant number of logs and debris and causing a jam.
"As soon as the log jam formed, gravel began to be deposited behind it," she said. "The entire level of the creekbed has now been raised at least (1.8 metres) in that area."
"The entire creekbed has been made raw and is constantly being scoured and reshaped. It was truly amazing to watch the speed with which radical shape-shifting was occurring."
The woman said she later noticed that the entire creek was flowing over and down her driveway for about 23 metres.
"It is impossible to get through," she said in the email, which was obtained from the Forests Ministry with all names removed.
In the email, the woman went on to say that she told a friend who was once involved in search and rescue about her concerns and that "he expressed in no uncertain terms just how dangerous this type of situation can be."
She said that when she told him that she and her mother would be going for a walk to take another look at the creek, "he said something like, `For God's sake, stay on high ground."'
The concluded her email by appealing for ideas on how the community could resolve the issues she observed in the creek, and said they could perhaps hike to place where hey could view the creek from above or have the government send out a helicopter.
"My conversation with the search and rescue friend underscored and emphasized highly what we had already been thinking in this house: That we need to somehow learn FOR SURE what is actually going on up there."
Jeremy Zandbergen, executive director of the Kootenay Boundary Region, said it's unfortunate that the residents tried to resolve their concerns on their own instead of immediately contacting authorities.
"What they should have done was actually contact the local emergency operations centre and these people can strike up the operations centre at a moment's notice -- whether it's an ambulance, police, search and rescue team or geotechnical engineer to conduct an inspection and assess the safety of the area," he said.
However, the actions of the community that includes about 10 homes are understandable, said Zandbergen, who is also a geotechnical engineer.
"We have to try and put ourselves in their shoes," he said. "They're in a small community, in this very independent lifestyle away from the rest of society for much of the year. They subsist on their own quite independently, come up with solutions all on their own."
Crebo said dam safety officials were notified three minutes after the Forests Ministry heard of the slide, followed by other agencies.
An RCMP helicopter was en route to the area 19 minutes after the ministry was notified about the disaster and a second chopper was dispatched within 58 minutes, he said.
The landslide is blocking the only road into Johnsons Landing, leaving the area accessible only by air or water.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has offered condolences to the victim's families.