By Nick Eagland & Tiffany Crawford
OSOYOOS, B.C. — Residents of this desert town woke up to a shock Friday after Osoyoos Lake approached levels not seen in almost five decades, spilling onto quiet streets and into the basements of picturesque waterfront homes.
Flooding from the lake led the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen to issue an evacuation order for 23 homes and an evacuation alert for more than 100 properties Thursday night, including the Coast Hotel. The town declared a state of emergency and ordered homeowners with flooded basements to stop pumping the water back into the town’s sewer system.
Acting Mayor Mike Campol said city officials were closely watching breach-prone locations, particularly near the lake, which by late afternoon had risen to 279.3 metres above sea level — just shy of the 279.5-m record set in 1972, according to U.S. Geological Survey data.
Campol said the water was expected to level off over the weekend, but flows from the Okanagan and Similkameen rivers threatened to increase midweek.
“It’s a matter of monitoring,” Campol said. “We can’t control the flow of water that comes in, but we certainly have to look out for our infrastructure and our residents.”
Premier John Horgan warned in a statement Friday afternoon that “the flood season has only just begun” for B.C. Across the province, heavy rainfall, warm weather and rapid snowmelt had triggered flood warnings and evacuations forcing more than 4,000 residents from their homes, Horgan said.
“Our first priority is to help affected communities and make sure everyone is safe,” he said.
Horgan said the province is already providing financial disaster assistance to people affected in the Cariboo and Thompson Nicola regions. As well, B.C. has activated regional response centres to provide updates, set up emergency supports and accommodation for evacuees, and shipped flood-mitigation equipment and millions of sandbags.
In Osoyoos, evacuees were given vouchers for local hotels, but also had the option of sleeping at the local community centre.
“And this being Osoyoos, if you look on social media, you’ll notice all the residents offering rooms and RVs, and stepping up like they usually do,” Campol said.
Wendy and Greg Fernandes, who were among dozens forced to evacuate properties on Harbour Key Drive, said water from Osoyoos Lake came into their neighbourhood overnight Thursday.
“Yesterday, you couldn’t see any water and today, it’s flooding,” Wendy said.
The couple spent recent days cleaning their basement in anticipation of the worst, putting their possessions in plastic bins and installing pumps. They were among residents offered hotel vouchers.
Standing on their lawn, they laughed as a pair of ducks swam down Harbour Key — something they hadn’t seen in 12 years of living there.
“We have waterfront (property) now,” Greg joked.
At a sandbag-filling station on Main Street, Ken Nelmes queued up behind two dozen vehicles, waiting his turn to load up his van. Nelmes said he had hauled more than 1,000 sandbags over three days to help his friends and their aging parents.
“Anybody that’s got a problem,” he said. “It keeps me in shape.”
Nelmes said he was grateful for all the volunteers and fire and forestry crews that were helping around the clock.
By Friday morning there were 31 evacuation orders across the province, affecting 1,993 homes, and 36 evacuation alerts, said Chris Duffy, executive director of programs with Emergency Management B.C. He said 23 communities were under a local state of emergency.
The province has deployed more than two million sandbags, and 210 firefighters were helping out Friday on the front lines. Four out of six provincial emergency centres have been activated around B.C.
Torrential rains that pushed southern B.C. waterways to flood stage had eased, but officials warn the new threat of unseasonable heat could rapidly melt snowpacks, adding to already swollen rivers.
David Campbell, head of the B.C. River Forecast Centre, said the critical areas to watch over the next few days are the Boundary Kootenay, Okanagan, Shuswap and Similkameen regions. Also of concern is the Fraser River, which officials expect will continue to rise as the hot weather continues into next week and the snowpack melts.
“The hot weather is particularly concerning for the flood outlook,” said Campbell, adding that temperatures have been about five-degrees warmer than normal for the past three weeks.
“That is extreme weather,” he said.
An evacuation order was expanded Thursday night to include more properties near Grand Forks, where about 2,500 people have had to leave their homes. An order was rescinded Friday for 54 properties in Okanagan Falls, where Shuttleworth Creek had breached earlier in the week.
Chris Marsh, emergency operations centre director and program manager for the Regional District of Kootenay Boundary, said Thursday that up to 50 millimetres of rain hammered some areas of the region, causing rivers to rise significantly.
The B.C. River Forecast Centre has upgraded to a flood warning the Okanagan, Boundary and Salmon rivers. The agency says the warning includes Mission Creek and surrounding tributaries in the Okanagan, as well as West Kettle River, Kettle River, Granby River and surrounding tributaries in Boundary.
The agency says the largest rainfall amounts have been in the Okanagan, Boundary and Salmon Arm regions.