Photographer Mike Cotton’s dispatches from the flooding along the Elk River in southeastern British Columbia. The area around Calgary, Alberta, was also hit.
The rain starts early Wednesday evening. Thunderstorms roll into the Elk Valley. Rumbling deep and low, they are still some distance from Fernie. It’s been a mild spring.
The night brings more rain and the thunderstorms linger now. Hovering directly over Fernie, thunder, more lightning, and heavy rain. The high-school grads roll through town at 6am celebrating, horns honking. The rain continues throughout the day, save for a midday intermission.
Awake early, rain has abated somewhat, light drizzle at most. But Fernie is still socked in. The Elk River, which runs through town, is now raging. All paths down to the river are closed by City of Fernie barriers. The frolf course is underwater. Uprooted trees speed by under the Highway 3 Bridge linking Fernie to Sparwood. Rumours of a washout of this road.
However, Fernie is getting it lightly, for now. Not like Canmore in Alberta, which is completely cut off. Roads and houses washed away as Cougar Creek has turned from a trickle into a raging torrent. Facebook is awash with videos and photos.
Talk in the supermarket is of floods from a bygone era, recent near misses, the curse of Fernie and sandbags. “The river's running pretty wild,” I say to the cashier. “Ah this is nothing yet, couple more days of this and we’ll be down there sand-bagging the banks,” she replies in a weary tone. She has seen this before.
The local bar is usually steady at best on a Thursday night, yet it was rammed tonight. People finding solace in the company of others or perhaps just knowing work is cancelled tomorrow as the roads to the mines have washed away.
In Elkford, 130mm of rain fell in 24 hours, and a state of emergency has been declared. The Elk River crested its banks in Sparwood, causing some local flooding and evacuations. It’s strange to read about these things happening just a few miles down the road from where I live, and while the Elk River is raging here, with the frolf course, tennis courts, and pee-wee baseball diamonds under water, the impact on our town so far is minimal.
Whatever happens, Fernie is a resilient town; avalanches, fires, and flood are very much part of the town’s history. The last time Fernie flooded was in 1995, in what was called a 50-year flood, yet it seems lessons have been learnt. The dyke built to protect the town, running along the airport and annex subdivisions, was improved. Many old timers in town remain skeptical, but so far the dykes have held.
A day of wet feet and sandbags. While Fernie has still escaped the worst of the flooding that's engulfed BC and Alberta, parts of the town are under water. The call goes out on Facebook around 10:30am that volunteers are needed down at the city yard.
Sporadic news comes in from other towns. Just up-river, Hosmer’s banks have breached -- concern over the bridge there failing. They are about to close the roads, cutting off access from the east. Yet our concern is for saving homes. I can't help but think of the floods taking place in India, where hundreds have died -- we are lucky. We are saving homes and not losing lives.
Throughout the day a stream of volunteers make their way down to the city yard. I take part in a dozen or so trips to the affected areas, ferrying sandbags to those in need. Back at the city yard, a carnival atmosphere is evident, beers cracked open, a bbq set up. Most of the volunteers live in parts of Fernie not at risk of flooding. Yet the community spirit is also plain to see -- old and young, locals and those newly arrived to town helping each other out. It’s what makes towns like Fernie special, a desire to help your neighbours whether you know them or not. Fernie is lucky in more ways than one, lucky that the dykes are holding and lucky that there are so many who care about this town.
The worst looks to have passed. The river is still high but the flow is slowing down and luckily the dykes have held. Just a bit of localised flooding -- it could have been much worse. What yesterday proved, however, is the community spirit that towns like Fernie have. When I went down to help fill and lay sandbags in the morning, there were only a few people around, yet as word spread hundreds came, ferrying them out to where they were needed.