One body found in B.C. highway landslide, more missing: RCMP

B.C. Ministry of Transportation
One person was killed following a mudslide on Highway 99 near Lillooet, B.C.

RCMP say the body of a woman has been recovered from a landslide across Highway 99 near Lillooet, B.C., following historic rainfall as a search continues for others who may be buried in the debris.

Staff Sgt. Janelle Shoihet said Tuesday the total number of people and vehicles unaccounted for has not yet been confirmed but investigators have received reports of two people who are missing.

“We are asking anyone who was a witness to the event or believes their loved one is missing and has not yet been able to make contact with them to contact the Pemberton or Lillooet RCMP detachments,” she said in a written statement.

David MacKenzie, manager of Pemberton District Search and Rescue, confirmed fatalities in the slide on Highway 99 about 42 kilometres south of Lillooet.

“Our team was able to recover a couple of people so far but it’s still an ongoing situation and I can’t really comment any further on that,” he said, though it was not immediately clear if the woman confirmed dead by the RCMP was among those two victims.

RELATED: 20 evacuation centres open in B.C. for rescued motorists, residents escaping flooding

In his daily public briefing Tuesday afternoon, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth was visibly emotional as he addressed the death.

“I would first like to extend my condolences to the family of the person who lost their life on Highway 99 and I want to take this opportunity to ask anyone who was a witness to the event or believes their loved one is missing and has not yet been able to make contact to reach out to Pemberton or Lilloett RCMP detachments.”

Crews were called to the slide around noon on Monday and the search is ongoing, MacKenzie said.

Several people were able to get out of their cars, he said, adding search conditions were challenging and heavy equipment would be needed to remove large debris blocking the way on the high stretch of mountain highway.

“It’s a lot of mud, debris, rock, trees, broken trees. When a mudslide comes down, it’s obviously very significant and involves slogging through mud, it’s quite difficult.”

A search for anyone who may have been buried by two slides is also underway in the Highway 7 area near Agassiz after about 300 people spent the night in their vehicles and were helicoptered to safety on Monday.

Jonathan Gormick, information officer with the Vancouver Heavy Urban Search and Rescue Team, said while the roadway has been cleared of potentially trapped vehicles or people, efforts will now be focused on the slide’s debris field.

Fast-rising water levels from a river in Washington state overwhelmed rescuers in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday here 1,100 homes were evacuated.

Those residents join thousands of others in the province who were forced from their homes by floods or landslides over a 48-hour period starting on Sunday night.

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said Tuesday that impassable highways are creating havoc as police and firefighters try to get people to evacuation centres.

“It breaks my heart to see what’s going on in our city,” he said.

Sunny skies followed two days of torrential rain that matched the region’s typical amount over the entire month of November, but the mayor said the water keeps rising and Highway 1 will be cut off for some time.

“People need to prepare that they may not be able to travel for a few days. Even then, there are washouts further up into the Interior, the Coquihalla (Highway), the (Fraser) Canyon. There’s not going to be any movement of trucks any time soon, nor trains for that matter.”

Braun said he’s worried about the livelihood of farmers in the area known for its thriving agriculture sector.

“We’re going to run out of feed in four or five days because we only have so much bin storage. The dairy industry as well. We have thousands and thousands of dairy cows on that prairie. They also need feed.”

Braun cautioned people against driving into what could be extremely deep ditches, adding he’s worried about getting enough information from officials in Washington state about water levels that have risen dramatically from the overflowing Nooksack River and over the Sumas dike.

“When are we going to crest? When is it going to level off here? It’s like a full cup of coffee. Once it’s full, it keeps flowing over the sides.”

Abbotsford police Chief Mike Serr said officers encountered cars that had flipped over with people on the roofs of vehicles on Monday night but had to choose to leave some motorists in trucks because they were higher above the water.

“I was out there last night. You could not see where the side of the road was. We had one member put on a life-jacket and swim out towards a car that was overturned to bring someone back. And that was on a regular basis for about two hours,” Serr said.

The evacuations in Abbotsford add to others in various parts of B.C., including in Merritt, where the entire town of 7,000 was forced to leave when the sanitation system failed due to an “atmospheric river” that caused flooding in the southwest and central parts of the province.

More than 20 emergency centres have been activated to help house stranded travellers.

The extreme weather had the First Nations Leadership Council calling on the provincial government to immediately declare a state of emergency.

“The unprecedented and continuing weather events prove that this is no longer a climate crisis. We are in an ongoing climate emergency, and lives and communities are at imminent risk,” the council said in a written statement.

Multiple roadways have been closed because of flooding or landslides, including sections of Highway 1A, Highway 3, Highway 5, Highway 11, Highway 12 and Highway 91.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 16, 2021.

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