OLIVER, B.C. — A wall of mud, water and rocks roared down a mountain in southern British Columbia on Sunday, obliterating several homes, bright green orchards and a section of the province’s longest highway.
The slide struck at about 2:20 p.m. local time near Testalinden Creek, just south of Oliver, B.C.
“We had five homes that were destroyed with approximately two others affected when this slide descended the west slope of the valley,” said RCMP Cpl. Dan Moskaluk.
He said searches were concluded Sunday evening, with all residents accounted for with no deaths or injuries.
“Given the debris and size of the slide, it is quite amazing that nobody was hurt or killed,” said Moskaluk.
He added that some seasonal agricultural workers reside in the area and the RCMP is confident all are accounted for. Moskaluk said he did not know how many workers might have been in the area at the time.
One official said residents might have heard the landslide coming and had time to get out of potential danger.
“I’ve heard that there was a warning, but it was only a five-minute warning and it was basically just friends phoning friends,” Allan Patton, regional director with the District of Okanagan-Similkameen, told The Canadian Press.
Patton said between 25 and 30 homes neighbouring the slide area were put on evacuation alert.
“Witness accounts are that the slide occurred in an instant with many residents realizing the danger posed and self-evacuating,” said Moskaluk.
James Cambridge, a 46-year-old area resident, said a wall of mud suddenly raced down the hill toward his home.
“Something let go up in the hills and this wall of mud came roaring down and took out our shop and buried a couple of cars on our property,” he said in an interview.
“The roar was deafening.”
Moskaluk said the area saw a “really heavy rainfall in the past few days” and a lake breached one of its outflow points and caused this “large amount of water and debris to descend down.”
Environment Ministry officials were assessing the situation Sunday night, as well as the cause of the slide.
Daniel Hayduk, a freelance photographer, said some of the homes that were struck were ripped right out of their moorings.
“It was like a river of mud flowing through orchards, over roadways and through houses,” he said. “It was a neat mix of brown muddy water mingling with bright, vibrant, green colourful orchards.”
Hayduk said one home looked like it had been picked up and lifted onto the highway. Others had little left other than a roof or walls.
RCMP said the mountain slope on the western side of the valley also buried part of Highway 97 and spilled into a creek. The highway was covered in up to four metres of mud.
Patton said now that district officials have confirmed the safety of area residents, the next phase can begin.
“Now we’ve moved from making sure people are OK to getting things back in working order and cleaning up messes,” he said.
“A lot of it has to do with the orchards and vineyards and farms that have been affected. What happens there? They’re just basically toast for this year, I think.”
But not all orchard owners were devastated by Sunday’s events.
Patton said he spoke with one man whose home was still standing, though the rest of his property was covered in mud.
“He’s feeling pretty happy. His house is intact and his family’s healthy, so that’s his main concern,” he said.
While it’s too early to know what exactly triggered the slide, Patton said the area has been hit by heavy rain of late.
“We had more rain than we’re used to,” he said.
“It’s obviously accumulated and (Testalinden) Creek has deep canyons, and potentially there was some debris that backed up and created a dam. But that’s really just speculation at this point.”
Oliver Mayor Pat Hampson said the highway would be closed indefinitely.
As he looked out on the damage caused by the slide, Hampson said he’d never seen anything quite like it.
“It’s pretty hard to describe something like that,” he said.
An emergency operations centre for evacuated residents was set up in Oliver, which is located in B.C.’s Okanagan region about 400 kilometres east of Vancouver.
Patton said 10 people had registered at the centre by late Sunday. He said whatever help area residents need, they’ll get.
“We’ve got a great community,” he said.
Landslides are not uncommon in mountainous B.C., but most often come down from remote slopes or, at worst, across highways.
Five years ago, heavy rains triggered a mudslide in North Vancouver, B.C., that killed one woman in her home. Her husband was pulled out of the mud and debris by neighbours and survived.
- By Sunny Dhillon in Vancouver