Raging Rivers – Alberta Floods
By Rob Evans
Redwood Meadows, Alta. – As many readers know, I write a blog called Size-up for Fire Fighting in Canada’s website.
By Rob Evans
Redwood Meadows, Alta. – As many readers know, I write a blog called Size-up for Fire Fighting in Canada’s website. My fodder for June 18 included a thank-you to Comox, B.C., Fire Chief Gord Schreiner for bringing his #Stopbad tour (see page 16) to Redwood Meadows. I wrote about the eye-opening training that Schreiner had provided in his presentation. Little did I know, I was about to be involved in a crisis during which I would close my eyes for for just six hours in three days.
|Part of Highway 758 in Bragg Creek, Alta., is washed out as a few days of heavy rains in June caused severe flooding throughout southern Alberta. This stretch of highway runs past the Bragg Creek Trading Post, which was devastated in the flood. Photos by Rob Evans
After a busy weekend hosting Schreiner, my days off from the City of Calgary’s Public Safety Communications unit were scheduled to be non-stop. Wednesday afternoon I headed out to pick up a siren that had been repaired, and then started the drive to Nisku, where the next day, I was to take part in meetings with Alberta Health Services (AHS) regarding patient care reporting for medical co-responders throughout the province. I figured I would head up the night before to the city just south of Edmonton, so I would be fresh for the workshop that started on 9 a.m. the next day. I checked in to my hotel room and sat down to watch the Bruins and Hawks game 4 and organize some paperwork for Redwood Meadows Emergency Services (RMES).
We had been warned that heavy rain was coming for our response area and while watching news from Edmonton after the hockey game, the anchors commented on just how heavy the rain was falling in southern Alberta. I decided to get in touch with one of my captains – my wife Jennifer – and ask her to take a drive and recon the Elbow River, which runs to the west of our town. It was about midnight and she reported back that although the river was high, it was not in danger of overflowing its banks. With this, I decided to put my head down and get some sleep.
The sleep was restless and when I was finally in a deep sleep, my alarm went off. As always, I checked my phone for voice messages, tweets, Facebook messages, and e-mails. There was a text for a rescue call on Bracken Road. Immediately, I knew this was not good; Bracken Road runs right along the river in Bragg Creek, immediately south of Redwood Meadows. I called Jennifer right away. I was told that the Elbow had started to overflow and the rain was continuing to fall, heavier than ever.
Knowing that the forecast was for the rain to continue for another three days, I packed my bags and headed where I was going to be needed – home. I continued to receive updates via the @RMESfire Twitter feed, text messages and phone calls while driving back to Redwood Meadows. I was also able to listen to radio traffic via an Internet feed of our radio channels that kept me updated in real time. An initial crew from our fire department, as well as automatic aid from Rocky View County Station 101, were responding to the call for help, but I quickly realized that the rescue was beyond the scope of our resources on scene. Command asked for mutual-aid assistance at the call due to high water levels and the inability of our crews to reach the people who were stranded on their property. Unfortunately, the water-rescue crews from Cochrane Fire Services were also unable to affect a rescue due to the fast-flowing floodwaters, and a front-end loader got its first piece of action for the day.
As I was reaching the north side of Calgary, still about 30 minutes away from our response area, our crews were sent to the Infusions restaurant in Bragg Creek to rescue eight people. We were now about two hours into the event that would take the better part of the next five days to bring under control. The water level in the restaurant was already overtaking the main floor of the building and the occupants, including a pregnant woman, an infant and a toddler, had to go to the second floor of the building. The Cochrane fire crews were only about a minute away, but they were delayed because of the Bracken Road rescue.
It is worth mentioning at this point, that almost every fire department in the area – Calgary, Priddis, Turner Valley, Black Diamond, Okotoks, High River and Foothills – were dealing with their own emergencies. Mutual aid was non-existent for the most part because flash flooding was occurring everywhere.
Around this time I received a call from Rocky View County interim Fire Chief Perry Prete informing me that a unified command was going to be established at the Banded Peak School, south of the Bragg Creek hamlet. This location was chosen for its ample parking and high elevation. After about a 10-minute drive, I pulled into our parking lot at RMES. After a quick meeting with Deputy Chief George Low and assigning him and fire communications officer (FCO) Jason Low to head to the command post at Banded Peak, I headed out in our Polaris Ranger to assess the operations along the berm protecting the Townsite of Redwood Meadows. Meeting up with Mayor John Welsh and councilor Dave Dunay, I was updated on the progress of the sandbagging and the call for heavy equipment to begin a five-day marathon of work along the 2.5-kilometre length of the berm.
Recognizing that workers had this location well under control, I focused on continuing efforts to rescue people in Bragg Creek. By now, Cochrane crews had relocated to the opposite site of the hamlet from the Infusions restaurant. The rescue crew from RMES had tried to reach victims stranded in a house but was unable to do so due to the high water levels and fast current. Capt./EMT Jennifer Evans, the officer on the rescue, requested that Cochrane’s crews redeploy to their location. Once Cochrane was on location, the Cochrane crew hitched a ride in the bucket of a front-end loader, and the four-man group headed toward a blind 89-year-old woman and her daughter. The women had become trapped in their home by the torrent and required immediate assistance; they were not able to shelter in place, and the crews immediately began the rescue operation. At this point, the loader backtracked and returned to dry land – well, the closest thing to dry land. I then informed all RMES crews that apparatus would no longer be permitted to drive through the rising floodwaters – the last thing we needed was firefighters in apparatus being swept away. It was not just the rising waters that concerned me, but also the type and size of the debris being swept through the new river channel going through town.
By this time, DC Low and FCO Low had arrived at the unified command post and met with crews from Rocky View County. All calls from Public Safety Communications in Calgary were now going through FCO Low and being distributed through to crews from Rocky View or RMES. It was not long after this that RMES crews were assigned to a call for two people in need of rescue from the roof of a car. The rapid response vehicle – a 4×4 Dodge 5500 – with a crew of three was dispatched and was able to drive to the front of house. Our crew realized that they would need the loader, and it was requested through command. Much to their surprise, the crew saw two women inside a house in front of which they had stopped. The rescue of these women was relatively easy and they were placed inside the rapid response vehicle until the loader arrived and the crew confirmed that the two people on top of the car had been secured.
I had returned to Redwood Meadows during the rescue and was told that sandbagging along Sleigh Drive had been successful, and that efforts were moving to an area along Redwood Meadows Drive. The river was substantially undermining the berm along this stretch, and heavy equipment was being moved to the location. This is where I met resident Richard Patton. Patton is in charge of air operations with Sustainable Resource Development (Forestry) for Alberta, so his knowledge of the incident command system was a great resource to call upon. He introduced me to resident and civil engineer Gary Smolik. From this point on, both men were assigned to work with heavy equipment operators while they shored up the berm.
More firefighters were arriving at the station for duty and I asked them to respond to my location to help with sandbagging and provide safety for volunteers at the scene.
I returned to the station to quickly make some phone calls and check e-mails for anything to do with the flooding. While in my office, I heard an animated voice talking to one of our firefighters on the apparatus floor. I went out to see what was happening and discovered a resident who was upset that we were not going to go through the floodwaters to rescue some pets. I tried to explain that we could not risk the lives of our crews to rescue animals. Little did I know that RMES crews were about to risk a lot to save a lot.
Mayday, mayday, mayday.
Most dreaded by anybody on the fire ground, this message sent a feeling through me that I hope I never experience again. The firefighters from Cochrane who were in the process of evacuating the two women ran into trouble when the inflatable Zodiac they were using to transport the evacuees flipped and tossed the women into the water. These guys are not just firefighters from another department. They’re colleagues, friends, brothers and family. The firefighters wasted no time broadcasting their mayday call, something that no doubt contributed to the successful outcome. When the distress call was made, a crew immediately went looking for the loader while the rescue and rapid response crews from RMES responded to the flooded four-way stop in Bragg Creek that had become a raging river. RMES crews donned PFDs and grabbed throw bags while waiting for the loader, and as soon as it arrived they were on their way down the street. Radio silence was declared during the rescue operation. With the help of the loader, RMES crews reached their Cochrane counterparts and were able to throw rope to them so they could affect their self-rescue and the rescue of the original flood victims. Backup crews from Cochrane had arrived during the operation and were staged should the RMES crews require more assistance. Also at staging was conservation officer Bill O’Connor, who was prepared to hook into a long line from a circling helicopter to be taken in and perform a rescue, if necessary. Once everyone returned to the staging area, Alberta Health Services paramedics assessed the victims and both women were transported to hospital in stable condition. All Cochrane crews were released from the scene soon after.
Toward the end of the RIT operation, RMES Capt./EMT Jennifer Evans received a phone call from our daughter’s school. The school board was about to evacuate the remaining students – about 20 – to a high school in the area. There was one problem though. Michaela is a pre-verbal, autistic seven-year-old who would not have her aide with her during and after the move. I was able to assign the rescue to go up the hill and pick up Michaela. I want to make it clear that we would have done this for any special needs child to make sure she had the appropriate care.
Michaela and nine-year-old Nick were taken home and left in the care of their 16-year-old brother, Alex. Alex had spent the past seven hours helping the community with sandbagging, evacuations, and even preparing landing zones for helicopters with evacuees from nearby Kananaskis Country. I was incredibly proud of our kids during this crisis; they were great over the five days while Jennifer and I attended to the community. We had prepared them well, and that was a good thing, because the crisis had not even started for RMES yet.
|A row of life jackets dries behind a station jacket at a fire hall in Redwood Meadows.
RMES crews were able to return to the station and take a short breather before being called out again, this time for a big rescue – 15 people. The Kiwanis Club of Calgary operates Kamp Kiwanis just north of Redwood Meadows, and there were people on the property who required evacuation. The rapid response vehicle headed to the location to determine what would be required. The crew was thankful that once again, a front-end loader was available for use. The rescue truck, which had responded east – almost to Calgary’s city limits – for another evacuation of people, joined the rapid response crew after they were cancelled by Rocky View County’s 102 Engine. It took more than an hour to successfully evacuate everyone from the site. Luckily, nobody required medical attention and everyone went on their way. Our engine was also sent to a residence east of Redwood Meadows for an elderly couple trapped in their house by the river. After consultation with loader operator Chris Buchanan, it was determined that only a helicopter and a long-line operation would make this rescue. Buchanan, who had been instrumental in rescues throughout the day, including that of the Cochrane firefighters, was truly devastated that he was unable to help. We, as firefighters, were doing what we all signed up for – being there for our community and neighbours. Chris was the real hero of the day – a loader operator who just happened to be driving by when we needed him. In fact, he was around most of the weekend, helping with the berm fortification as well. We later found out that his wife was due with their first child on that day. Chris worked for four more days virtually non-stop while his wife waited to go into labour. One week after the flooding began on Thursday, June 27, Chris became the father of a little boy.
We all got back to the station and put our feet up. I was busy tweeting updates to our MLA and MP. I was not paying attention and I thought I sent a direct message to MP Ted Menzies to phone me; it turns out that I mixed up my contacts and had inadvertently messaged close friend and Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L., Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie. I was a little bit surprised when Vince called the station at 1:30 a.m. Newfoundland time. I loved it, though. Hearing Vince’s voice, I immediately knew what I had done. I asked him for a dory. I was told I might need something more than a dory. Vince made me laugh – a nice release during a stressful period. Little did I know that I hadn’t been introduced to real stress yet.
After hanging up the phone, I sent the tweet to the proper person and then headed out to check on the progress of the berm reinforcement; there was a beehive of activity, with heavy equipment working but managing to stay just ahead of the river. It was pouring rain and the forecast was not for anything better. I stayed at this location for a couple of hours, then returned to the station. By then, some guys were bunked down, others were in the office talking. I changed radios out and told the guys I was heading home for a rest. It lasted two and a half hours. There’s nothing like getting woken up from a sound sleep and being told the berm has been breached. I raced to the station while Jennifer got our kids and pets ready to bolt. By the time I had reached the station, crews had already started filling trucks with equipment and, within half an hour, we were, for the most part, evacuated to the school south of Bragg Creek. We used our lock-box key and entered the school, basically taking over the facility as our new station. The only truck left out was going through the town, using the loudspeaker to announce that everyone who remained was to leave the area immediately. I stopped at our house once more to pick up a couple of things and just sat in the driveway; it was the emptiest feeling I have ever had. I didn’t know if I would ever see our home again. I drove away and headed for the school. There was no sleep that night – between being a parent and looking after our children, and being a fire chief and doing interviews with Global, CTV and CBC, I just could not fall asleep.
I was scheduled to call in to Global Calgary’s morning show at 7 a.m. so I got up from the gym mat and hopped into our bush buggy to investigate what was happening in Redwood Meadows. Much to my surprise I found that the berm was indeed holding and the heavy equipment operators were hard at it, making sure the river was not going to win. Much of the morning Friday was spent at the site of the potential berm failure, making sure the equipment operators had everything that they needed. That morning, we were fortunate to have crews from Environment and Sustainable Resources Development available to us for manpower. We put them to work as much as possible, assisting with more sandbagging and some groundwater pumping duties. As the day wore on, the clouds started to clear, and the steady rain slowed and eventually stopped. The river began to recede and we were able to get into Bragg Creek to further investigate the damage. During the height of the flooding the previous day, the one and only bridge into the West Bragg Creek area had been closed due to considerable undermining of the structure, as well as the amount of large debris that had collided with the bridge while coming down the river, including one house. On Friday, engineers concluded that the bridge was sound and that vehicles could once again cross back and forth. Crews were kept running steadily on Friday, retrieving pets, dealing with gas leaks, and responding to general public safety calls. By dinnertime, we were convinced that we had won this battle. The river level was going down, by now, quite visibly.
Overnight, a schedule of berm recon in Redwood Meadows had been set up for every hour, as there were still a couple of spots that were worrisome. During a check of the berm during the 5 a.m. hour, Capt./EMR Mike Norman noticed there was some erosion of the berm in an area that had previously been OK. The problem was that the river channel had now changed and was running directly into this spot on the north side of Redwood Meadows. An hour later I got the urgent call on the radio to attend this north end of the berm. While driving to the site along the top of the berm, I stopped dead in my tracks – and good thing! There was no berm left. In that hour between checks the river had eaten away at the berm substantially, taking as much as 30.5 metres (100 feet) of material with it, and it was not slowing down. A quick call to the mayor had supervisors for the equipment operators and dump truck drivers on scene within minutes. I also requested that our crews who were still stationed at the school respond, and start going door to door to make sure people were out of their homes.
It was not long before our call out on social media had volunteers on scene to begin sandbagging. We decided, with help from former RMES member Sean Connaboy, that staging for this part of the operation would be at the south end of town in the parking lot of the Redwood Meadows Golf & Country Club. This worked out well, as truckloads of sand could be dumped there, people could fill the bags, and there was an area for pickup trucks to park, fill up their boxes with completed sandbags, and then drive straight out. Volunteers found it very frustrating to sit there and wait for the call to start placing the sandbags around the homes. We had to delay having the volunteers come to the scene because of the heavy equipment operating. It was just too dangerous to have civilians, let alone emergency responders, working so closely with the equipment. About 10 pickups were filled with sandbags and ready to go when we needed them, but it would be a little while. We told the volunteers to go and rest and, when required, we would put the call out on social media. A couple of hours later that call went out and it was amazing to see how quickly volunteers were back at it, on scene and placing sandbags along the predetermined line around two homes. More than 100 people were around those houses and emptied about 20 truckloads of bags in about half an hour. It was great to see the volunteers work so smoothly together. Once again, they were returned to the staging area at the golf course, and once again they were told that when we needed their help, we would put the call out on social media. That call never had to go out, thankfully. Heavy equipment and dump trucks worked throughout the night and by Sunday morning the fight had been won.
As the sun rose Sunday morning, it was clear that our town had been saved, thanks to the hard work of equipment operators, our volunteers and our emergency responders. It was a beautiful day and with the water out of the streets, crews were able to start assessing more of Bragg Creek. Many of the homes in the hamlet had been heavily damaged as the river powered its way through. One building, the Bragg Creek Trading Post, had been devastated. An anchor of the town, the building included an old store and gas station, complete with an antique gravity-fed pump with a newer log-style home built onto the back side. It was difficult to look while I walked around the building to find the owners and see how they were doing. There was a very obvious answer to that question, but they have been longtime friends of RMES and it was important to let them know we would be there for them going forward. After talking with them for about an hour, DC Low and I continued on to assess the rest of the community.
RMES and Rocky View fire departments continued to operate from the school until the end of Monday afternoon, although we had begun to move equipment back to Redwood Meadows on Sunday. Public hazard and gas-leak calls continued until Wednesday, June 26. On our regular training night on Tuesday, June 25, we decided to let the crews unwind, and had a big barbecue at the station, a thank-you for all the great work RMES crews had done during the previous five days.
Physically, we have recuperated; emotionally, the flood of 2013 will stick with some of us for a while. Lessons learned will be gathered. Some things will change, some will remain the same, particularly the brotherhood of the fire service. We had help from fire crews from Rocky View – including the Elbow Valley, Springbank, Madden, Langdon and Irricana stations – and from the Cochrane and Crossfield departments. And, during the crisis, Deputy Chief Brad Lorne from Calgary kept in constant contact to make sure we were doing OK. Departments in Rocky Mountain House and Strathmore offered assistance as required. No words can express how much we appreciated the help and offers from departments all over Alberta. In Redwood Meadows, we got lucky. There’s no question that hundreds of people worked hard to protect our town, but when you are dealing with Mother Nature in this context, we got lucky.
Rob Evans is the chief fire officer for Redwood Meadows Emergency Services, 25 kilometres west of Calgary. Evans attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1989 and studied photojournalism. In 1992, he joined RMES after taking pictures of an interface fire and making prints for the department. He has his NFPA 1001 level II certification, NFPA 472 Operations and Awareness (hazmat), NFPA 1041 level I (fire service instructor), Dalhousie University Certificate in Fire Service Leadership and Certificate in Fire Service Administration and is a registered emergency medical responder with the Alberta College of Paramedics. He lives in Redwood Meadows with his wife, a firefighter/EMT with RMES, and three children. Follow him on Twitter at @redwoodwoof.