British Columbia

Residents near Highway 8 washouts ask B.C. government to help as they struggle to communicate

Communication is virtually nonexistent in the Spences Bridge area, making it difficult for residents near Highway 8, which was washed out in several spots last week, to get emergency information.

No timeline yet provided for rebuilding, future of residents in the area remains unclear

Flooding took out large portions of Highway 8 west of Merritt, B.C. (B.C. Ministry of Transportation)

Steven Rice and his partner Paulette had nothing but the clothes on their backs when they left their home near Highway 8 last week after watching the Nicola River reach dangerous heights. 

Rice, who has lived in the area for more than 20 years, woke up one morning to see water levels rising, and as the day progressed, he knew he had to get his family and his animals out of the area.

His home was one of dozens situated near Highway 8, which was damaged or washed away completely in 18 spots during extreme rainfall last week, cutting residents off from the rest of the province and prompting emergency rescues. RCMP are investigating reports of a missing woman in her 70s who was unable to leave her home during the flood.

Engineers say it could be weeks before highway repairs in some areas can even begin — if they can be accessed and rebuilt. And as temperatures begin to fall with the arrival of winter, Rice worries the damage to his home will become more severe if he can't get in to winterize and clean up the property.

Rice and his wife own a café in Spences Bridge, which has become their temporary home, along with Paulette's brother and Rice's farming partner, five dogs and a cat. Most evacuees, he said, have found accommodations outside of town.

He's put up Christmas decorations to try to bring some joy to an otherwise stressful and devastating situation.

"It's really, really hard," he said.  

Highway 8 in B.C.'s Interior is completely closed after 18 segments of road were damaged by floodwaters. (Doug Herbert/CBC)

As he tries to deal with the impacts of the flood on his own home, Rice is struggling to communicate with his family or others in the area; he's the area director for the part of the Thompson Nicola Regional District that covers Spences Bridge and the homes along Highway 8.

"The communication is, I think, one of the hardest parts because we need to talk to our loved ones. They can't get ahold of us," Rice said. 

He's been hiking up a hill to get cell reception to communicate with residents and family members. 

TNRD director Steven Rice, who lives near Highway 8, checks his phone for messages during a brief window of internet connectivity in Spences Bridge on Nov. 23, 2021. (Doug Herbert/CBC)

Calls for changes to emergency services, communication system

The Cook's Ferry Indian Band's office is located in Spences Bridge, but members say they are unable to get ahold of anyone there right now.

Residents have been forced out of their homes due to evacuation orders, several homes are completely inaccessible because of the road damage, and communications are essentially nonexistent. 

Telus has supplied a portable device called a CALF, a radio repeater on a telescopic mast, which provides a one-kilometre radius of emergency signals, but Chief Christine Minnabarriet said that doesn't cover the Cook's Ferry land.

"We need a better communication system," Minnabarriet said.  

"We need to be able to have emergency contact with even our office, let alone [other] officials."

Cook's Ferry Indian Band Chief Christine Minnabarriet is calling on government to improve communication services for those living near and along Highway 8 so emergency information can be sent to members more efficiently. (Doug Herbert/CBC)

She's calling on the province to provide direct communication with her and her people about how and when they may be able to return to their homes. 

"I want to know what the plan is for the debris that's in the Nicola River and now the Thompson. It's dangerous. We've got barbed wire for miles. We've got how many countless vehicles and all the liquids that go along with that. Propane tanks. Those things are explosive."

Rice also wants the government to help residents get into their properties, likely by helicopter, to assess the damage, grab necessities and prepare their home for the winter, because it's unclear when people may be able to return to the area. 

Minnabarriet also wants more training for volunteers and staffers working with the Emergency Support Services (ESS) program, to ensure people accessing help are treated fairly. 

For example, she said people staying in hotels feel they're treated like regular customers, rather than someone who has been through a recent trauma.

"There's a lack of compassion there," Minnabarriet said.

She says this needs to happen soon, because these situations are only going to happen more frequently.

"We've got a storm approaching this week. We've got freshet coming in the spring. This is our new normal," she said. 

Government working on alternate routes

During a news conference on Wednesday, government officials said they are working to identify alternative routes, such as forestry roads, for those cut off from access to properties and services. 

Engineering expert Paula Cousins said stakeholders are meeting with Indigenous leaders and communities this week to look at options for Highway 8.

"The damage is extensive but our first priority is to look at wherever we can feasibly gain short term and temporary access," Cousins said. 

She says she expects there will be more information about Highway 8 next week.

With files from Doug Herbert