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Residents of Old Fort, B.C., remain isolated as huge, creeping landslide continues its slow march

VANCOUVER—As a slow-moving landslide continues to creep down from the cracked hillside towards the Peace River more than 24 hours after its descent began, the residents of the nearby Old Fort community outside Fort St. John, B.C., are still stranded with no safe way to leave their area.

Gordon Pardy, a longtime Old Fort resident who spoke with the Star on Sunday, said he and his wife, Bobbi, are staying put for the time being despite a conditional evacuation alert that had been issued by the Peace River Regional District.

A pair of Old Town residents walk by the landslide which has buried the only access road to their community, just a few kilometres outside of Fort St. John, B.C.
A pair of Old Town residents walk by the landslide which has buried the only access road to their community, just a few kilometres outside of Fort St. John, B.C.  (Courtesy Bobbi Pardy)

“We’re doing OK, hanging in here,” Pardy said by phone. “We’ll probably manage better than some people.”

The whole community has its water trucked along Old Fort Road — the only access to or from the Old Fort community — which the landslide had buckled and then buried over the past two days, he said. The asphalt buckled and heaved throughout Sunday, and is now buried under earth, trees and debris far higher than a person stands.

And since the community’s water is only delivered every two weeks, Pardy said, some residents are eyeing their personal reservoirs worriedly. The power was also cut Monday, he added, since the lines were directly below the oncoming landslide. That means Old Fort residents no longer have heat for their homes, he pointed out, and it’s -6 C in the Peace River area. It has also begun to snow.

The Peace River Regional District (PRRD) — the administrative body responsible for the area — issued a conditional evacuation alert for the Old Fort area Monday morning. The alert says residents may evacuate the area “if they feel it necessary to do so.” Those residents who evacuate will be provided with food and lodging by the PRRD. Alternatively, residents may remain in their homes, though the alert notes they must be “self-sufficient,” as there is currently no vehicle access and the road may not be repaired for several days.

“Residents who choose to stay will not be provided additional support (supplies, medication, etc.) at this time,” the alert reads.

Trish Morgan, director of the PRRD emergency operations centre, said the PRRD strongly encouraged residents to evacuate regardless of whether the landslide posed greater danger than simply isolating Old Fort.

Pictures provided to the Star by Bobbi Pardy show that the slide is moving slowly enough that trees brought along with the massive movement of earth actually remain upright. Bobbi likened the material to slow-moving lava; a person could outpace it at walking speed, she said, but there was so much earth it was just unstoppable.

But landslides in that part of the province — especially along the Peace River — are not uncommon, said John J. Clague, emeritus professor in the department of earth sciences at Simon Fraser University. Clague emphasized he had not visited the Old Fort slide, so couldn’t comment directly on that specific event.

“The soils up there are particularly prone to landsliding,” Clague said in an interview. “They’re very clay-y soils. A thick package of non-rock material — we call them sediments.”

These sediments, Clague said, are particularly thick in the Peace River Valley area. This is the kind of sticky soil, he said, that will make a mess of your boots when you walk through it. And because these soils have very low strengths when they’re deposited at the bottom of steep slopes (as they are in the area around Old Fort) they can be prone to fail, crack and provoke a landslide, as in this case, he said.

The fact that the trees remain vertical as they move down the slope aligns with the kinds of conditions that might typically be seen in landslides in that area, he said.

Gordon and Bobbi Pardy, meanwhile, said they are spending their hours checking in on neighbours and making sure everyone in the Old Fort area has what they need to stay safe.

“Some people are leaving,” Gordon said, noting the power outage had really changed the equation for some residents.

But at the moment, he added, the slide only appeared to be threatening them with isolation, and posed no direct danger to their home.

Perrin Grauer is a Vancouver-based reporter covering Canada’s cannabis economy. Follow him on Twitter: @perringrauer

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