British Columbia

Abbotsford mayor says catastrophic flood danger averted for now, as water levels drop

Nearly 200 stranded residents of Sumas Prairie were rescued overnight by helicopter and boat, according to the mayor of Abbotsford.

Overnight, city staff and volunteers built a dam to protect at-risk Barrowtown pump station

Smoke billows from a fire at an RV business in the Sumas Prairie flood zone Wednesday morning. The fire had been extinguished as of Wednesday afternoon. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun said water levels are abating in the city and the danger of catastrophic flooding is no longer at a critical level.

It comes after 150 staff, volunteers and farmers worked overnight to build a sandbag dam to hold back rising waters coming from across the U.S. border.

Braun said the dam has bought the city some much needed time and protection for the Barrowtown pump station, which was in danger of being inundated with flood waters flowing north from the Nooksack River in Washington state. 

On Tuesday night, Braun issued a public alert that failure of the Barrowtown pump station was imminent and would result in loss of human life in the Sumas Prairie area of the city. 

The Barrowtown pump station contains four pumps that have been working at full capacity to move 2.3 million litres of water per minute from the low-lying Sumas Prairie, which used to be a lake draining into the Fraser River.

Located in Abbotsford, the pump station is only accessible from neighbouring Chilliwack, according to that city's mayor, Ken Popove.

WATCH | "We're not out of this yet," says Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun:

Abbotsford, B.C., mayor discusses current water levels

2 years ago
Duration 2:36
'I'm just hoping that we're not going to get rain,' says Mayor Henry Braun of Abbotsford, B.C., while updating the public on the catastrophic flooding in the area. Braun says water continues to flow across the U.S. border and into Sumas Prairie.

Popove said Wednesday that residents and city staff in his community helped build the 25-metre long sandbag wall that is now protecting the station.

"In an emergency situation, it is important for neighbours to help each other out, and that's exactly what Chilliwack has been doing for Abbotsford throughout this emergency situation," he said. 

Overnight, 184 stranded people were rescued from Sumas Prairie using three helicopters, 11 boat rescue teams and additional teams from Chilliwack Search and Rescue, according to Abbotsford fire Chief Darren Lee.

Farm land in the community of Sumas Prairie is pictured under water during flooding in Abbotsford, B.C., on Tuesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Abbotsford police Chief Mike Serr said 40 more people were evacuated over the course of the day, with another 40 choosing not to leave as of Wednesday evening. He called the situation "concerning" and urged those staying behind to evacuate the area.

Earlier Wednesday, the city downgraded an evacuation order to an alert in the Huntingdon Village area. Access to the U.S. border from Abbotsford remains closed.

An evacuation order for the community of Yarrow and Majuba Hill in Chilliwack was downgraded to an evacuation alert Tuesday evening. Residents living elsewhere in the city are not at risk of flooding, say city officials.

Chris Wilson, Chilliwack's emergency co-ordinator, said Wednesday morning that 642 evacuees had registered at the emergency supports reception centre, which is being relocated from 46363 Yale Road to the Chilliwack Landing Sports Centre. 

He said 190 of those people are spread out between two emergency shelter spaces set up at the Landing Centre and Evergreen Hall.

Fire on RV lot now extinguished

Lee said in addition to rescues, his department had its hands full with a large fire burning at a flooded RV business at North Parallel Road and Sumas Mountain Road.

Officials said 100 RVs were burning Wednesday morning at a business in Abbotsford. (submitted by Shawn Smith)

An estimated 100 RVs were on fire, sending plumes of black smoke into the air. As of 2:10 p.m. PT, the fire was extinguished.

"This truly was a team effort from all involved to prevent further damage and spread," the Abbotsford Police Department said in a statement.

Alert Ready system not activated

Abbotsford and provincial officials have faced criticism for not using the Alert Ready warning system during the Tuesday night emergency at Sumas Prairie.

"It was our decision not to activate the provincial Alert Ready system for the whole city of 162,000 people [because] we were contacting the 300 people who live in Sumas Prairie directly," said Braun.

"Those 300 people know there's an emergency by just looking out their window, so we didn't want to alarm the whole city."

Braun said the sunny, dry weather Wednesday is helping reduce the risk of further flooding.

"The Fraser River, in the last 24 hours, has dropped two metres. It needs to drop another metre until we can open the floodgates at Barrowtown, which will allow seven times more volume out than those four pumps working full tilt," he said.

"I'm just hoping we're not going to get more rain."

Schools and evacuation orders

Three schools in Abbotsford remain closed, while others have reopened or pivoted to online learning for the remainder of the week. Schools in Chilliwack and Hope are closed Wednesday. The University of the Fraser Valley has cancelled all classes — in person and virtual — for the remainder of the week. 

An evacuation order was issued for about 1,000 Abbotsford properties Tuesday as flooding linked to a severe weekend rainstorm pushed up water levels in the area, which is home to many large dairy farms and other agricultural and livestock operations.

Abbotsford evacuees can find help at the emergency support services reception centre located at the Fraser Valley Trade and Exhibition Centre (Tradex), 1190 Cornell St.; or at Chilliwack Senior Secondary School, 46363 Yale Rd.

Anyone placed under evacuation order should leave the area immediately.

To find an evacuation centre close to you, visit the Emergency Management B.C. website.

Evacuees are encouraged to register with Emergency Support Services online, whether or not they access services at an evacuation centre.

Road conditions can be checked at DriveBC.

With files from Bridgette Watson and Akshay Kulkarni