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B.C. communities cut off as Chilcotin River flooding washes out roads

Wednesday, July 10th 2019, 2:50 pm - 'The Chilcotin is not built for this kind of weather period,' says Tŝilhqot'in tribal chair

Hundreds of people who live along the Chilcotin River and its tributaries have been devastated — and, in some areas, stranded — by flooding, road washouts and unstable earth as incessant rains continue to overwhelm the river.

At least five roads in the region are now impassable after more than 100 millimetres of rain fell in five days, creating what's been described as a flood that would likely happen only once every 200 years.

The Chilcotin, which usually flows a blue-green colour between the Chilcotin Plateau and the Fraser River, has been churned into a torrent of dark brown floodwater.

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Around 300 people living in the isolated Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, one of six communities that form the local Tŝilhqot'in Nation, have been entirely cut off in the Nemaiah Valley because the three main roads that allow access have been chewed up and washed away.

"I haven't seen that river that full," said Joe Alphonse, tribal chair with the Tŝilhqot'in National Government.

"The Chilcotin is not built for this kind of weather period. It's overflowing our creeks and rivers. Culverts are blowing out. We're having mudslides. We're having road washouts, you name it."

big-creek-flood-chilcotin-river (1) (Another ranch in Big Creek, B.C., this week. A flood warning is in effect for the area after 100 millimetres of rain fell in a matter of days. Randy Saugstad)

FLOOD WARNING ISSUED SUNDAY

The rain started pelting the region late last week. The province's River Forecast Centre started monitoring water levels on Friday, but an official flood warning wasn't issued until Sunday.

Residents say they were already frantic by then, dealing with flooding that came as a surprise on Saturday.

Ranches were turned to swamps and backyards were dotted with their own miniature lakes. Locals started to phone officials in a panic for help, but they say none came for days.

BCRiverFlood

"People phoned on Sunday The call [was] finally returned at eight on Monday morning and even then, nobody shows up," Randy Saugstad, a rancher in Big Creek, said Tuesday.

"We cannot seem to get any interest from the government."

The centre said river hasn't seen such a flood in 200 years.

Alphonse said he saw a similar response.

"The [Cariboo Regional District] emergency response centre wasn't set up when all this washout started happening. There was nobody to call on the weekend. I think [they] started mobilizing on Monday and Tuesday," Alphonse said Wednesday.

Emily Epp, spokesperson with the district, said it activated its emergency operations centre on Monday.

big-creek-flood-chilcotin-river (2) Ranches in Big Creek, B.C., are flooded with brown, silty water from the Chilcotin River in early July. Resident and pilot Randy Saugstad took these photos from his own plane over the weekend. Randy Saugstad)

The chief said the Tŝilhqot'in Nation established its own emergency support network after being devastated in 2017 by what was then a record-breaking wildfire season. A report in April found the nation had not been properly supported over that summer, seeing delayed and unequal protection during the emergency.

Alphonse said the nation's own protocols developed as a result are now in motion, two years later, to help the community cope with water rather than flames.

"It's really amazing, the power of mother nature," he said. "Our country is not used to this and to have our country shut down again, but for flooding this time … it's definitely eye opening."

This article, written by Rhianna Schmunk, was originally published for CBC News. Includes files from Yvette Brend.

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