Hundreds of volunteers ready to help Old Fort residents

Hundreds of volunteers are reportedly ready to mobilize and help Old Fort residents return to their homes when it's safe to do so.

In an update Friday morning, Peace River Regional District board chair Brad Sperling said there's up to 200 volunteers and no shortage of equipment offered to help residents return after a landslide forced them to evacuate on Oct. 7.

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"Until the geologist say that it is safe for us to go in, we wont be going in," Sperling said in an interview on Moose FM.

"I don't think there's a person in this whole regional district that isn't prepared or wants to be down there to put those people back in their homes or get them out."

The landslide began on Sept. 30, crippling Old Fort Road, the only road in and out of the community along the Peace River south of Fort St. John. The next day, the landslide had grown and swallowed a wide swath of the road entirely, stranding residents and placing them under an evacuation alert for nearly a week.

Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure crews were ready to start building a new road into Old Fort across a number of islands in the Peace River on Thursday morning, Sperling said. But by the afternoon, the slide had continued to move and push its way into those islands, making it too dangerous for crews to work. An evacuation order of Old Fort was expanded to include those islands.

The landslide was last reported at six million cubic metres and continues to shift and spread.

Geologists continue to take LiDAR surveys of the landslide, and are looking at it in three separate sections: the main slide, which began underneath a gravel quarry on the hillside above Old Fort and is pushing its way through a gully in the Peace River valley; and two separate sections to the east and west of the main slide. An old landslide has been triggered to the west of the slide, and there have been stress cracks opening and spreading to the east, toward and above Old Fort homes.

"They are concerned about the impact of those hills moving towards the residences," Sperling said. "We've had to ask the city to monitor their lagoons."

Full force of law

The regional district has said it will use full force of the Emergency Program Act to prevent residents and trespassers from entering Old Fort. Anyone caught risks a $10,000 fine or jail time.

Some residents were boated in by volunteers on Oct. 10 to gather their belongings while supplies were flown in by helicopter to start winterizing homes as they will likely be out of their homes for months. 

They did so against previous orders from the regional district to stay out of the area; residents say police have warned them that they will be arrested if they return.

Peace River MP Bob Zimmer led those efforts with the help of Jeff Garrison, and a small army of volunteers, contractors, and plumbers. 

Zimmer said that wasn't done in defiance of the evacuation order.

"What we were seeing was the land crossings were slowly being closed to any kind of helper, and we hadn't been told water access had been limited to us," Zimmer told Moose FM.

"We went in with the residents wanting to help, that was the understanding. We didn't want to break any laws, that wasn't the intent."

The intent was to help while there was still opportunity, Zimmer said.

"We all saw the rains coming that happened yesterday and last night, we wanted to beat that, because we thought that might change everything, it might cause the slide to get worse," he said.

"That's why we did it on that particular day."

Elderly couple stranded

The evacuation order covers 54 homes in Old Fort and up to 200 residents. However, there are roughly 10 people still down there, including one elderly couple, the Kirschbaums, who are in their 60s, Zimmer said.

"There's still an urgency there," he said. "I'm concerned about people like that. Their health is at stake."

Garrison said he and Zimmer have been in contact with the regional district and other emergency authorities to help co-ordinate future efforts.

There are "unlimited resources" in Fort St. John available to help, Garrison said. The regional district has been presented with a plan that would see a minimum of 400 volunteers, and up to 1,000 people on site, with an evacuation plan and warning system in place as part of that, Garrison said.

"We just need their OK. So far, they're liking the plan, so now it's a matter of implementing it," he said.

The regional district says it's developed a plan with an experienced contractor for equipment and resources necessary to help evacuees.

Anyone wanting to help can contact the PRRD's emergency operations centre at 250-784-3200, or Zimmer's office at 250-787-1194.

Housing for evacuees top priority

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 hotel lodging in the short term. Plans are being developed for the medium and long-term, and a worst-case scenario is being assessed, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike 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.

Zimmer said evacuees could be out of their homes for up to eight months, and that finding proper housing for them is the priority right now.

"If anybody has a house that's sitting dormant or sitting empty, or an apartment or something, you can help out," Zimmer said.

"A family is a family. They want to not just be stuck in a hotel room where they're eating restaurant food all day."

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

© Copyright 2018 Alaska Highway News

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