Old Fort landslide a 'complex situation,' public safety minister says

The Old Fort landslide moved at least 20 metres on Wednesday, and is proving to be a complex situation for emergency managers to respond to, B.C.'s public safety minister says.

Mike Farnworth was in the region on Oct. 10 to meet with local officials and tour the landslide area south of Fort St. John by helicopter. In the few hours between his flight that afternoon and a survey flight earlier that morning, the slide had moved 20 metres into the Peace River, Farnworth said. Cracks haved opened up and are widening to the east and west of the slide along the hillside above the Old Fort community, and that's putting it in further danger, Farnworth said.

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"That's of critical importance in terms of the decisions and the plans that need to be implemented to deal with a lot of the issues we know the residents are facing," Farnworth said.

"They are in a very difficult situation and we understand that."

Old Fort residents were ordered to evacuate on Oct. 7, an order that covers 54 homes and up to 200 residents. 

It's unknown when the landslide will stop.

It started Sept. 30 on a hillside above Old Fort and below a gravel quarry, pushing dirt and snapping trees down through a gully in the Peace River valley. It's destroyed a wide swath of Old Fort Road, the only road in and out of the community.

Wednesday's movement is remarkable in that the slide had been reportedly moving an average of four metres per day since it began.

Residents had to evacuate their homes on short notice, leaving pets and livestock and vehicles behind. They're being supported through emergency social services to provide for lodging in the short term. Plans are being developed for the medium and long-term, and a worst-case scenario is being assessed, Farnworth said.

"Critical to that is understanding the actual nature of this slide. If it stops moving and it's determined it's stable, that will allow you to say here's a realistic timeline (to return)," Farnworth said.

"Until that's done, it's very difficult to give a definitive answer."

While emergencies such as fires are covered by insurance, landslides are not an insurable event, Farnworth said.

A regional manager for Emergency Management BC has been assigned the to landslide and will be stationed in the region. They're being tasked with understanding the values of affected properties so disaster financial assistance can be determined, Farnworth said.

The Housing Emergency Assistance Program may also be available for residents, which provides financial help for housing costs, Farnworth said.

The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure has narrowed down its options to re-establish road access to Old Fort, and are ready to mobilize and build at a moment's notice.

At the same time, river barges may be used to transport residents and belongings in and out, and contact has been made with companies to provide the service, Farnworth said.

The key issue right now is getting a better understanding of the mechanics of the landslide, both underground and on the surface, Farnworth said.

LiDAR surveys, which shoot laser lights into the earth to create a map, continue to be taken from the air. That data is being cross-referenced with surveys from 2005 and 2015 to understand how the hillside has changed over the last 13 years.

"Thats the kind of information they need to be able to … determine what's safe," Farnworth said. 

Farnworth said he met with some residents today and sympathized with their plight and their concerns.

"The province's key priority in all of this is safety of the public and the safety of first responders working on the ground."

"This is a terrible thing. Your life has been disrupted and turned upside down, and you want answers and you want to know when can I get back to my home, and is my house going to be OK?" Farnworth said.

On Wednesday morning, some residents were boated in by volunteers to gather their belongings while supplies and plumbers were brought into to winterize homes. They did so against orders from the regional district to stay out of the community; residents say police have warned them that they will be arrested if they return.

There was no timeline given on plans to properly mobilize residents and allow them back in to the community in a more orderly fashion. That will only happen when it's safe, Farnworth said.

"Let me be really clear, the regional district does not put in place an evacuation order for the sake of putting in place an evacuation order," Farnworth said.

"There may be those who think that they shouldn't do that, or it's OK, that they know it's best to go in. The reality is evacuation orders are put in place for a reason. The RCMP have roadblocks there for a reason. It's about public safety, it's about ensuring that when people can go in there that it is safe to do that." 

An investigation will be launched, Farnworth said.

"Once this whole issue has been resolved, once the slide is stabilized, once people know what the long-term situation is going to be, of course there's going to be an investigation into how this happened, why it happened, and are there measures that need to be taken to mitigate or ensure it doesn't happen again?" Farnworth said.

Many Old Fort residents have pointed to a gravel quarry on the 240 Road above the slide as a possible cause. 

The Ministry of Energy, Mines & Petroleum Resources said it was informed the day of the slide that the outer edge of the quarry had dropped eight to 10 metres.

The quarry, operated by Deasan Holdings, was properly permitted, officials say. Crews moved between 20,000 to 25,000 cubic metres of stockpile gravel to alleviate weight loads above the landslide before worked was stopped for safety reasons. 

Removing the gravel was more of a precaution than an indication the quarry was the cause of the slide, officials say.

The ministry has ordered the the company to retain a third-party investigator to provide a report on its operations. The ministry will take action based on any issues that may be identified in the report, officials say.

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

© Copyright 2018 Alaska Highway News

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