Canada: floods prompt evacuations in region hit by summer wildfires

Communities in western Canada who were forced to flee their homes this summer by wildfires and extreme heat are once again under evacuation orders after overwhelming floods across the region.

Helicopters were dispatched on Monday to Highway 7, more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) east of Vancouver, to rescue about 275 people, including 50 children, who had been stranded on the road since it was blocked by a mudslide late on Sunday.

Footage from the area showed stranded travellers heading towards a yellow emergency helicopter during the rescue operation. The surrounding landscape was littered with debris from a landslide that blocked access to the highway.

“I definitely heard people screaming for help,” Adam Wuisman, who was driving the section of the highway when a landslide hit, told CBC News. “It’s kind of helpless to feel like you’re between a very vulnerable mountainside on one side and the Fraser River on the other side. And there’s really nothing you can do about it, but hope nothing comes down on top of you.”

A view of a road near Popkum following mudslides and flooding in British Columbia, Canada on 14 November 2021.
A view of a road near Popkum following mudslides and flooding in British Columbia, Canada, on Sunday. Photograph: British Columbia Transportation/Reuters

Images of surging rivers, mudslides, flooded cities and destroyed highways circulated on social media as officials scrambled to assess the full extent of the damage, warning residents the situation could deteriorate further as winds picked up throughout the day.

According to Environment Canada, 225 millimetres of rain fell on the community of Hope since the storm began Saturday and 180 millimetres had fallen around Agassiz and Chilliwack in the eastern part of the Fraser Valley.

After two bridges and its water treatment facility were overwhelmed by flood waters, the city of Merritt issued an evacuation order to all residents, warning that “continued habitation of the community without sanitary services presents risk of mass sewage back-up and personal health risk”.

Merritt last issued evacuation orders this summer after the wildfire that destroyed the village of Lytton came dangerously close to the city.

Since June, the province has experienced a record-setting “heat dome”, huge wildfires that destroyed two towns and choked the air for weeks, extreme events that experts say were worsened by the climate crisis. Last week, Vancouver, British Columbia’s largest city, was briefly placed under tornado watch, a rare event for the region.

The heavy rainfall and pounding storms are also taking a toll on the US Pacific north-west, where flooding in Washington state forced school closures and evacuation warnings on Monday.

The National Weather Service warned that winds nearing hurricane strength were possible in the region, which has seen nearly ceaseless rain for about a week. A wind gust of 58mph (93km/h) was reported on Monday at Sea-Tac international airport in Seattle. About 25,0000 customers were without power in western Washington.

Parts of the region have seen more than 6in (15cm) of rain in the past several days. Less than halfway into the month it is already the third wettest November that Seattle has seen in more than a century, according to the Washington Post, with rainfall records likely to be broken.

The Associated Press contributed reporting