British Columbia

Old Fort residents wrestle with evacuations as only road in or out of town slowly slides away

The residents of Old Fort, just outside Fort St. John, have been on evacuation alert since Friday evening, as the only road in and out of the Peace River community gradually slips down the side of a slope.

Residents in Peace River community have been on evacuation alert since Friday

A landslide is inching down a hillside in northern British Columbia, prompting the evacuation of nearby Old Fort. A resident of the small community on the banks of B.C.'s Peace River says he's concerned that if he leaves, he won't be able to come home. (Marten Geertsema/B.C. Ministry of Forests and Lands via The Canadian Press)

A resident of a small community on the banks of B.C.'s Peace River says he's concerned that if he leaves, he won't be able to come home.

Karl Kirschbaum, 68, said he's watched the only road in and out of Old Fort gradually slip down the side of a slope.

"It's just moving toward the river, the whole road,'' Kirschbaum said in an interview.

The residents of Old Fort, just outside Fort St. John, have been on evacuation alert since Friday evening.

The same community was evacuated in 2018 because of a slow-moving landslide at that location.

The difference between now and 2018 is that residents are prepared, according to resident Ali den Ouden. 

"It's a much more relaxed environment this time just simply because we know what to expect a little bit and what we can expect to happen in days to come and weeks to come," den Ouden said.

Ground movement has again been detected near the subdivision, affecting the only road access in and out of the area, the Peace River Regional District said in the alert.

About 150 metres of the road is affected and the cracking extends 100 metres upslope, while "creeping behaviour'' is moving down from the road and there's a ripple in the ground.

The slow-moving landslide has sped up to between 30 and 45 cm per hour, the alert said.

Anyone not prepared to shelter in place was encouraged to consider leaving the area, as the situation could worsen.

"The ground movement has created difficulty for the Ministry of Transportation to maintain the road in a safe and passable condition, and the likelihood, duration and speed of continued ground movement is unpredictable at this time,'' the alert said.

It's all familiar to Kirschbaum, who said he's trying to decide whether he should walk the road out of the subdivision so he can go to work on the other side or not.

Den Ouden said she and some of her neighbours managed to get their water tanks filled, and they will have power this time around thanks to the power line being moved after the last slide, so she's comfortable staying home. 

"It's a bit more comforting to be in my house right now than last time."

'It's the same as last time'

When residents were forced to leave in 2018 because of a slow-moving slide at the same location, they couldn't return for weeks, he said.

His wife stayed home to look after the animals on their acreage that fall, he said. Supplies like bottled water were shipped in but those who left couldn't return, he said.

The community lost power during that slide but the power is still on this time, he said.

In September 2018, around 200 Old Fort residents were forced from their homes after a landslide damaged the only road that provides access to the community. (Jeff Garrison)

Norris Noble lives just above the slide so he said he's not affected by the road closure, but he said it's a familiar scene.

"It's just slowly creeping, it's the same as last time,'' he said.

The regional district is asking residents to make an evacuation plan, including packing essential items and establishing meeting locations outside the community should the alert be upgraded to an order.

Residents should plan for a variety of situations and determine if their individual situations allow them to remain safely in place or not if road access is lost.

Emergency support services are only available to those who evacuate, it said in Friday's alert.

Old Fort Road was closed in both directions Sunday due to a washout and geotechnical assessment was ongoing, Drive BC said.

Den Ouden hopes the community will get answers from experts about what residents should expect in the future. 

"It seems quite unlikely now, if we wanted to up and move, there would be no way for us to sell our home," she said.  "I think the majority of us down here are just thinking we'll be here for awhile, unless there is some way, there is some plan to [buyout] our homes and to move us out."

With files from CBC's Radio West


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