Monday, September 27, 2010

First fire, then flood.

I stood at my living room windows and watched the river rise. It had already flooded the meadow across the road and hidden the barbed-wire fence that surrounded it; now it lapped at the far shoulder of the road itself.

It was 1980; I had just bought my house in the Bella Coola valley, a log cabin nestled snugly at the bottom of a rocky mountain half-way up the valley. The property had garden plots on three levels, a good barn, roses, lilacs, and other flowering shrubs, an apple tree (transparents), and below us, below the level of the road even, a lawn with a row of purple plum trees.

I was watching to see if the flood waters would top the road and pour over into my plum "orchard". Otherwise, we were safe, on the first rise of our side hill.

While I stood staring out into the rain and mists, a pickup drove slowly around the bend of the road, and stopped by my corral. A couple of people, unidentifiable in yellow raingear, went to the back and unloaded a skiff, which they manhandled across the flooded fence. They climbed aboard and rowed off in the direction of the river, about a kilometre distant at that point.

Not a good day for a paddle on the river.

They cast about for a bit, then aimed for a spot towards the trees on the down-valley side. Squinting, I could see a shadow on the water there. They pulled up and got out of the skiff. Then nothing.

Later, when the water seemed to have slackened some (maybe it wouldn't flood my plums, after all!), I saw the explorers rowing back. They loaded the skiff into the pickup, turned around and headed down valley.

When the valley had finally dried, the machines came, and built a road to that hummock, the one with the flag at its highest point. There, my new neighbours built their house, high and dry in the middle of a flood plain. Bella Coola old-timers know their river.

That was 1980. The "big" flood that old-timers still talked about happened in 1968; then every single bridge in the long valley was knocked out. The Bella Coola River had carved new channels, undercut the road, and eaten away the land under a fool-hardy newcomer's house, too close to the bank.

Google terrain map of the Bella Coola Valley. About a mile wide at the widest point, 50 or so miles long.

This year, the river has broken all the rules. And suddenly, too; three days ago, residents were remarking at how low the river was for this time of year. And now, it has flooded beyond its 1968 record, beyond the memories of living men. (There was a flood that left the townsite dry in 1936; the previous major flood was in 1896.)

The valley is in the news; here's a report from CBC News. Look at the accompanying photo; the house I stayed in when I visited last month is just on the left of the open area, nearest the river. Fortunately, my hosts hooked up the trailer and moved it up valley when the rains started. My son-in-law says his Dad "doesn't like wet socks." A typical Bella Coola-ite downplaying of difficulties; all his electronic equipment is in his drowned basement, and his wife's prize garden is a rueful memory.

But they're lucky. As before, the bridges have gone. And the water, from 3 rivers and many good creeks pouring down from those tall mountains, has flooded almost the entire valley floor, from the extreme right of my map to the tide flats at the left. Above the valley, the road has been washed out, and will probably not be opened again for several months. The dike separating the airport from the river breached, and the river tore up the runway.

The valley is isolated, as it was for so many years before the road was built. And more; each segment of the valley, split as it is by tumultous rivers, is isolated from the others. Many people got out on time; many did not.   It was all too sudden. A couple of my friends woke up in the morning, dry on the second floor of their house, to find, below, their couch floating around the living room. They got out, in a boat; their horses, as far as I know, are still stranded in the field.

But the valley people are strong and resourceful; they'll survive, though life is going to be difficult this winter. They are working hard, already. Volunteers are out marking damaged spots on the road, shoring up shaky foundations, picking up stranded residents and ferrying them to safety before the next rise in the water.

Because more rain is on its way. It's expected to continue through Monday, and on into Tuesday.

I have no photos, this time. I'm too far away, here in the Fraser Valley. But there is a Facebook group, "Bella Coola Flood, Sept. 2010, with 193 photos. An ex-valleyite started it, others have added more, and those of us who can are labelling the photos for people wanting to know about their families' situations. This photo is of a bridge that went out in 1968; the "temporary" bridge held out this time, but the road access is gone. A hundred people or so are stranded on the far side.

Why was the flood so unexpected, and so extreme this year? I'll explain, next post.


  1. I too lived in Bella Coola. Over the 12 years there was many a November night listening to the distant sounds of the Nusatsum River turn into a roaring torrent. It made you feel so small in this mighty valley. Now I have to sit here on Vancouver Island and hope and pray that all my dear friends and family are safe. It will be a long time of healing and fixing and getting their lives back to's not over yet. The regular November flood season is still to come. I pray hard for them all.

  2. Wow. What a year this has been! In every way.

  3. I have accquantances from 100 Mile who are stuck in Bella Coola. One had to be helicoptered to safety.

  4. michael8:31 am

    hi, i have been interested in moving to the valley for a number of years. beautiful place, someday!!


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