GRAND FORKS, B.C. — The Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, B.C., has begun lifting evacuation orders on some properties, after cooler temperatures and less rainfall spared the area from an expected second surge of catastrophic flooding last week.
By Sunday afternoon, the regional district had rescinded evacuation orders on 175 properties, which affects about 350 people in Grand Forks and some nearby communities.
Residents at all 415 properties at Christina Lake had their evacuation orders lifted by Sunday evening.
"I'm excited to say the forecast is improving and the river levels are dropping faster than anticipated," said Dan Derby, fire chief for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary.
About 20 rapid damage assessment teams comprising 47 firefighters are going door-to-door, putting placards on homes with minimal or no damage that they deem safe to return to.
Amid the devastation, they have found a small piece of good news.
"There's been a higher number of [homes] than we anticipated that are what we call 'green' or safe to re-enter," Derby said.
While about 1,000 properties remain under evacuation orders in the region, Derby said the goal is to have as many orders lifted as possible by the end of the day Monday.
That includes opening up the downtown core, while acknowledging that some individual businesses may require damage repair, he said.
Several hundred homes evacuated due to loss of road access will also have their orders rescinded once access is restored, but officials warn that doesn't mean the community is in the clear.
The district says waters could rise again later in the week if there is heavy rain, so it's encouraging residents to keep sandbags in place until more high-elevation snow finishes melting in the coming weeks.
The rising water levels in the Kettle River watershed have also increased the risk of sloughing, erosion and bank instability in several locations, so 39 addresses in the Grand Forks area have been issued hazard notices.
The Red Cross is setting up a "resiliency centre" in the community, as a place of support for residents whose properties are unsafe to enter and as a source of information for all those affected.
About 100 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, who had arrived to help prepare the area for the forecasted second surge by sandbagging and reinforcing dikes, left the area Sunday and were redeployed to other parts of the province, officials said.
While that second surge never came, regional district chairman Roly Russell said the military provided vital psychological support to residents and emergency crews already exhausted by the disaster.
"We knew we would have the capacity to respond Friday, Saturday, to the surge that was predicted," Russell said.
Other parts of the province remain on alert, but are also hoping to avoid major damage.
Langley's emergency program co-ordinator, Ginger Sherlock, said officials there are monitoring dikes and are ready to deploy sandbags if necessary.
But she said the area has been lucky so far to avoid a projected rise in the Lower Fraser River that would have displaced hundreds of people.
The gauge at Mission was projected to reach 6.0 metres by the end of the day Friday and rise to 6.4 metres by Monday, which would prompt evacuations in areas unprotected by dikes. It was hovering just below 6.0 metres by Sunday afternoon.
"We were prepping in case we needed to evacuate people, but we got good news (Saturday) that the levels were not as high as anticipated," Sherlock said.
"Nobody wants to be displaced and nobody wants to displace people. So we're hoping and crossing our fingers and toes that Mother Nature continues to be co-operating with us for the next couple of weeks."
Meantime, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan will visit Lake Okanagan on Monday to observe flood relief efforts.
There are currently 300 Canadian Army soldiers assisting with flood relief efforts in the region, while other military assets and personnel are on standby.
Sajjan will receive briefings from military operations staff and meet with Canadian Armed Forces personnel assisting in flood relief efforts.
He will be accompanied by senior military staff co-ordinating the military's relief efforts in the province.
On Sunday, members of the military worked alongside B.C. wildfire contractors and municipal staff in the Green Bay area of West Kelowna to install sandbags and other flood protection measures.
Kirsten Jones, public information officer for the Regional District of Central Okanagan, described Green Bay as a spit of land coming into the lake that is particularly vulnerable because it hosts lots of public infrastructure.
She said Okanagan Lake is currently at 342.54 metres — six centimetres above "full pool," the target set by the province to ensure adequate water supply through the summer.
"Full pool doesn't necessarily mean flooding, and it's not a terrifically unusual occurrence in the Okanagan. But it is something we mention as sort of a measure," Jones said.
Only two properties are under evacuation alerts at the moment, she said, however the lake is expected to keep rising.
Private property owners are responsible for protecting their own property and should put the same flood-protection measures in place as last year, the regional district said.
Jones said last year's historic flooding rose higher than 343 metres.
Region-wide flood protection measures that had been put in place for possible creek flooding, including bladder dams and sandbags, are now being redeployed to areas vulnerable to lake flooding.
Boaters are also being asked to avoid creating wakes near vulnerable shorelines, and to watch for debris and other hazards.
— by Amy Smart in Vancouver
The Canadian Press