'Eerie' feelings part of emergency evening

About 1,400 valley residents see evacuation order issued, then lifted in response to after massive Meager landslide

Even the animals knew something was up. Denise Van Loon noticed the strange silence among the animals on her family's Pemberton Meadows farm when she was outside on Saturday (Aug. 7) at around 2 a.m., hearing no sounds other than a bit of dripping water.

"It's just a really eerie feeling," she said.

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Through an unnerving evening and strange morning, life in the Pemberton Valley was proceeding under the looming threat of 1.5 to 3 million cubic metres of water held back by a massive dam created at the confluence of Meager and Capricorn creeks about 65 kilometres north of Pemberton.

The dam formed from the debris of a landmark landslide estimated at around 40 million cubic metres of material, on par with Canada's largest, that poured down from the peak of Mount Meager in the wee hours of Friday morning (Aug. 6).

The massive rock avalanche utterly scoured the landscape as it swept into the Meager Creek Valley, and stranded some 13 campers and miners who were evacuated or assisted by Pemberton RCMP and Search and Rescue members. The material landed in the valley in such a way that a lake began to form behind a sizeable dam at the confluence of the two creeks. The slide material also blocked the Lillooet River for a short time.

Thoughts quickly turned to flood concerns for the valley as experts and officials sought to understand which waterways were blocked and what the implications were, trying to get the best people up into the area to assess the situation. People living in the Pemberton Meadows watched the water levels in the Lillooet fluctuate drastically, with Jill Giese of Dreamcatcher Meadows likening the initial impact of the slide to the draining of a tub.

"For a river to be noticeably dropping, you know something big is going on," said Giese, co-owner of the Dreamcatcher stables in the Pemberton Meadows.

As of 5:30 p.m. Friday, everyone living in the Lillooet River valley floodplain, including the Village of Pemberton and parts of Mount Currie, was under an evacuation alert.

A few hours later, geotechnical experts had observed the lake reaching high enough to make a dam breach imminent. Approximately 1,400 residents in the two areas - in the Pemberton Meadows upstream from Miller Creek, and between the Lillooet River Highway 99 bridge and Lillooet Lake - were ordered late Friday night to evacuate their homes and farms.

Leslie Lloyd, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District's director of administrative services, said about 70 per cent of the 1,400-odd residents affected by the order decided to evacuate.

Some, like Van Loon and husband John, decided to stay self-sufficient with their homes and farms. Denise Van Loon kept baking - 150 muffins in two different kinds Friday, and on to a chocolate zucchini batch Saturday.

"John's not worried one bit," Van Loon said on Saturday morning, shortly before the evacuation order was lifted. John Van Loon and his family members had weathered Pemberton floods before, she said, as had other longtime Meadows residents who decided to stay.

They kept watching the water levels on the Lillooet, and she coped with any lingering stress over the uncertainty of it all by doing what has kept her calm through other tense situations like the 2003 floods: "I bake."

Pemberton Mayor Jordan Sturdy also decided not to leave his family's North Arm Farm east of the Village, having learned lessons from the dramatic 2003 flooding that he wanted to implement. He said he made an "educated and calculated decision" to stay and defend the farm. The 2003 flood cost him $75,000.

Sturdy said they worked all night to undertake some of the protective measures they didn't in 2003, and then "worked all next day to put it all back," he said with a rueful laugh.

Eloise Eaton of the Bluevault Equestrian facility in the Meadows got a midnight visit from an RCMP officer told her family about the evacuation order, and said a dam breach was expected within half an hour.

"We decided we could not abandon any of our horses, so we stayed. It was a bit nerve-racking when he then asked us for our next-of-kin details," Eaton wrote in an email. "We spent a sleepless night worrying and hoping for the best."

The question of how to handle evacuating animals was a key point for many. John Dingle, Giese's husband, said the information distributed by the SLRD through the stressful situation was timely and great, but he would hope to see future work to create a strategic plan for where to take animals during an evacuation.

"Is there some higher ground somewhere that is accessible quickly? That would help everybody," he suggested.

Meanwhile, the Lil'wat Nation evacuated members from about 184 households to higher ground in the new site within about two hours, Lil'wat Nation Senior Administrator Mike McGee said, giving residents beds, food and support at Xit'olacw Community School.

"It went very well, actually. We are quite proud of how we handled our side of things," McGee said of the evacuation process, commending the efforts of the many Lil'wat volunteers who rallied to help during the difficult and stressful situation. "We took good care of our people, we protected their property and homes through the night."

Rick Guthrie, regional geomorphologist for the Ministry of Environment, was one of two experts who flew up to the slide area on Friday and observed around 8 p.m. that "the lake was high enough that a dam breach was imminent," he said.

Some time between 8 p.m. and midnight Friday, the lake's waters did breach the dam, flowing overtop of the wide-based blockage and beginning to cut down the material. The lake drained over a period of about an hour, behaving exactly as predicted, Guthrie said.

There was a substantial flow as water and debris swept past the forestry bridge around 3 a.m. Saturday and down to Pemberton a few hours later. But everything stayed within banks and necessary gauge readings, Guthrie said.

A Saturday morning flight over the dam area showed that the threatening lake had "drained to its pre-event condition (and) the hazard is gone," Guthrie said.

On Saturday at 11 a.m., the evacuation notices were lifted, allowing the atmosphere of strain in the valley to start to dissipate.

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