After 29 years in search and rescue, this was a first.
Al Hurley, a manager with Coquitlam Search and Rescue, spent most of the night and day working the operations centre for Emergency Management BC. That was Monday. On Tuesday, Nov. 16, he was asked to head into the Fraser Valley where an atmospheric river had flooded farmland, overwhelmed infrastructure, triggered mudslides and led to approximately 17,000 people being evacuated.
“I’ve been in Search and Rescue for 29 years,” he says. “I’ve never had to deal with a catastrophic flood.”
Hurley was one of a dozen Coquitlam SAR volunteers who headed into the valley.
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Split between a helicopter team and a boat, the 12 volunteers faced a seemingly simple but daunting job.
“When people are stuck or injured we go and get ‘em whatever way we can: by boat, by land or by air,” Hurley explains.
While Hurley had experience assisting with evacuations during wildfires, dealing with the flood brought its own challenges: the first of which was the sheer amount of aircrafts bringing supplies in and people out.
“Chilliwack air base looked like it was Kandahar,” he recalls. “The Hydro guys, the pipeline guys, Metro Van, they were using the helicopters to do flights to check on all of the infrastructure so it was tough getting an aircraft.”
There was also the challenge of navigating the terrain amid shifting pools of brownish water in fading daylight.
“Some of the water could be ankle deep or over your head but you can’t tell it’s so murky,” he says.
Still, they were able to evacuate dozens of high-risk residents, many of whom were stranded due to medical issues including heart issues and kidney problems requiring dialysis.
Some had that “deer in the headlights” look, Hurley says. Others, having watched their community being swallowed by the waters, were just thankful someone showed up, he adds.
In addition to assisting with evacuations, the helicopter team also played a critical role in protecting infrastructure. One of their first jobs was flying electricians to Abbotsford’s Barrowtown pump.
“We got the electricians there, they got it fired back up again,” he says.
Looking out the helicopter, Hurley recalls the sight of people signaling for help by waving flashlights into the air.
For a brief period, it looked like their work in Abbotsford was coming to an end. Then the phone rang.
“We got a panicked phone call from the City of Abbotsford: they felt the pump was going to fail again.”
A failure would mean another 200 evacuees, Hurley says. Two helicopter teams headed back.
“Because of the heroic efforts of the citizens who sandbagged the pump, it didn’t fail thank God,” he says.
With the Abbotsford side somewhat stable, they reached out to the Chilliwack Search and Rescue team and asked if the team needed any help.
The Coquitlam SAR team did another 20 rescues in Chilliwack, Hurley estimates.
“Most of the time we could land either on someone’s property or on a road real close.”
They would usher the people into the helicopter and take them to a school soccer field where they’d be loaded onto a bus with whatever they could take from their homes.
Hurley is particularly grateful to a Chilliwack SAR volunteer who seemed to know every place people would hole up in an emergency.
After some geotechnical flying intended to help assess the infrastructure damage, they were told to head home.
“About 10 minutes after I got home . . . Talon Helicopters called me back.”
Looking back on those days in the valley, Hurley is moved by the selflessness he saw.
“A lot of really heartwarming stories of people helping out,” he says. “Even people who were flooded out were still helping out.”
There was one pilot who lived in Merritt. His house was underwater but he never missed a day of work, Hurley says.
Hurley spent a little time at the wildfire air base in Chilliwack.
“Most of the staff had scattered to the wind,” he says.
But there was one guy with a forklift loading pallets of emergency supplies onto helicopters.
“When our guys weren’t doing anything they were helping him load bed and blankets and food,” he says. “I’m so proud of the people of this province that pulled together.”