British Columbia

With 40,000 chickens dead, Sumas Prairie farmer braces for a difficult rebuild

Dave Martens, a chicken farmer whose farm is in the flooded Sumas Prairie, says he's lost tens of thousands of birds in the floods and all of it could have been avoided.

Many homes and farms are completely submerged and inaccessible as officials rush to repair damaged dikes

Farmer Dave Martens has lost 40,000 chickens due to the flood in Sumas Prairie in Abbotsford, B.C. (CBC)

There was already one foot of water on the roads by the time chicken farmer Dave Martens fled his farm on the Sumas Prairie Tuesday night.

After desperately working to save what he could — shifting half his birds to drier land, moving equipment and companion animals, organizing trucks to move feed — Martens eventually had to leave half his flock behind as the floodwaters approached and calls to evacuate the area grew louder. 

His farm now sits under six feet of water.

"Forty-thousand birds have died in my barn," Martens said. "Who knows what it's going to be like once we get back in there."

The farming region east of Abbotsford is one of the hardest hit regions in B.C. after catastrophic flooding and mudslides destroyed critical infrastructure, highways, and farmland this week — and forced thousands to flee their homes.

The floods were triggered by historic rainfall on the weekend. More than 20 daily rainfall records were shattered across the province.

A preventable loss?

Martens and his wife, both first generation farmers, started their operation from a "plain field" back in 1990. Their children were all born in the farm home they built and the farm produces a quarter million pounds of chicken every eight weeks.

He says the widespread devastation of this flood could have been avoided. 

Sumas Prairie was created a century ago when Sumas Lake, which used to extend from south Chilliwack to Sumas, Wash., was pumped dry to make room for agriculture. 

The four pumps at the Barrowtown Pump Station are responsible for keeping water from the Fraser River at bay, but they are currently not keeping up with water that is also flooding in from the Nooksak River south of the Canada-U.S. border.

A map of Sumas Prairie showing the location of the Barrowtown Pump Station which pumps water from the low-lying area. The blue arrows indicate the flow of floodwaters into the area from the Nooksak River in Washington. (CBC / The National)

Martens says after the 1990 flood — another instance when the Nooksak River overflowed from across the border — he had a meeting with then-mayor George Ferguson in Abbotsford and spoke with him about building a dike along the southern border to prevent the water from rushing in again.

"We build all these other infrastructure pieces here but reality is, it's a problem created south of the border and its flowing north into Canada," Martens said.

"It's just disheartening. It didn't need to happen. It's time that people act."

Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun says urgent dike repairs are needed to avert catastrophic flooding in the city, and the total cost of rebuilding could exceed $1 billion. Braun said 64 soldiers are on the ground in Abbotsford as part of a contingent of 120 that is supporting the city's efforts.

Volunteers from the community fill and deliver sandbags to farms in the Sumas Prairie flood zone in Yarrow, British Columbia on Friday, Nov. 19, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Work is at a feverish pace because more rain is expected.

"I'm concerned about the Nooksack overflowing its banks again. And if it does, that water's coming right back through Sumas across our prairie. That's what we're trying to stop before the next rain event," Braun said.

'We will rebuild'

As for Martens, the emotional and financial loss is major and rebuilding will be painstaking. 

"It's not just water. It's dead animal carcasses. You've got feces. Diesel gas. Other contaminants floating around. This is all permeating, getting into our houses. Everything that's down there is destroyed," he said. 

Martens chokes up when he talks about not being able to save his elderly dad's classic car. 

"I'm trying to hold it together," he said. "I have to keep telling myself, Dave, it's just stuff. Lives are more important. We'll get through this. There's going to be some hard days ahead ... but we are resourceful. We will recover. We will rebuild."

With files from On The Coast, Michelle Gomez, Canadian Press