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'Painful waiting game': Regional district expects answer on future of Old Fort next week

It'll be at least a week before Old Fort evacuees will know whether they're able to return home or face a long winter away from it.
oldfort
Old Fort, Oct. 20, 2018.

It'll be at least a week before Old Fort evacuees will know whether they're able to return home or face a long winter away from it.

The Peace River Regional District expects to have a full geotechnical report on the Old Fort landslide and whether it's safe for evacuees to return home by the end of the week, board chair Brad Sperling said in an update Oct. 20.

"We're concentrating on getting people back home, and dealing with our report once it comes, making sure we're prepared for whatever that report says," Sperling said.

More than 150 Old Fort residents were forced to evacuate on Oct. 7, one week after a landslide cut power and destroyed the only road in and out of the community along the Peace River just outside Fort St. John. 

The regional district has hired Westrek Geotechnical Services to study and monitor the slide alongside geologists from the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations. Westrek officials were not present at Saturday's update and Sperling knew little about the company's recent findings.

Until its report is provided, the regional district is working on plans that would see some or all residents return home, or a continued and prolonged evacuation, Sperling said.

If residents are able to return, the regional district will need make sure homes are de-winterized, cleaned of spoiled food and goods, and that any pests and rodents are removed, Sperling said.

If residents aren't able to return home, the regional district will need to ensure all homes have been prepared for winter, that residents are given a chance to get all the belongings they need, and that power, at the very least, is restored to the community along with temporary road access. Providing security to the homes during the winter will also be a priority, Sperling said.

"It's a painful waiting game for all of us, especially the residents," Sperling said.

Once the report is received, a community meeting will be held to discuss its findings, and other provincial agencies will be invited, Sperling said.

A temporary road is currently being constructed around and through landslide debris that destroyed Old Fort Road. That work is expected to take at least three weeks to finish.

BC Hydro is currently fixing power lines on the west side of the community, work that should be done by Tuesday. Next week, utility crews will start building a new line into Old Fort on the east side of the community, which will restore power to the majority of the BC Hydro customers in Old Fort.

Meanwhile, the province has approved disaster financial assistance for residents whose homes have been damaged by the landslide.

MLA Dan Davies says he is pushing the public safety ministry to come up with a plan for housing assistance and compensation for the large majority of Old Fort residents who won't qualify for disaster financial assistance because their homes weren't damaged, but who face staggering losses in their property values.

Davies said he's also working with MP Bob Zimmer, who was not present at Saturday's meeting, about securing federal help for residents.

"We need to get a plan in place and we need to get that plan communicated to residents either way in what that looks like," Davies said. 

BC Hydro has applied to the BC Utilities Commission for billing relief for Old Fort customers.

The landslide began Sept. 30 and has grown to more than eight million cubic metres. 

Earlier this week, geotechnical experts said they had found signs of movement in parts of the slide, but not in the hillside above most homes in Old Fort.

That allowed utility and transportation crews to get on the ground and begin their work, while more than 50 residents were ferried into the community by boat to collect belongings and prepare their homes for winter as a precaution.

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