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Fatal Washington slide brings home concerns to Kootenay

The landslide that brought down a rain-saturated hillside along the Stillaguamish River near the town of Oso in Washington State late last month brings home memories and concerns about similar occurrences in the West Kootenay. - Courtesy Bob Keating/CBC Radio
The landslide that brought down a rain-saturated hillside along the Stillaguamish River near the town of Oso in Washington State late last month brings home memories and concerns about similar occurrences in the West Kootenay.
— image credit: Courtesy Bob Keating/CBC Radio

The landslide that brought down a rain-saturated hillside along the Stillaguamish River near the town of Oso in Washington State late last month brings home memories and concerns about similar occurrences in the West Kootenay — especially in light of upcoming spring runoff and increased rainfall.

Jillian Madill, a former resident of Johnsons Landing, said watching television footage of the slide in Snohomish County was so emotional she had to momentarily turn it off.

“We were just having a lot difficulty watching it because it brings back so many sad memories of what happened in Johnsons Landing,” she told 103.5 The Bridge. “We know what those people in Washington State are going through and it’s a very, very difficult situation. There is nothing you can compare it too. Certainly our hearts go out to those people… It’s just dreadful.”

But the “need to know” is so strong that Madill said she will continue to tune in.

Those living in the Perry Ridge area in the Slocan Valley where a 1997 slide moved one man’s home 11 feet overnight are feeling anxious as another slide makes headline news.

“It did just raise the anxiety we’ve had on Perry Ridge for many years,” said Perry Ridge Water Users Association president Marilyn Burgoon. “Any time I hear of a landslide anywhere it concerns me because we know and have all the evidence of how unstable Perry Ridge is.”

Since the Snohomish slide, rescuers have searched through mud, in some places 70 feet thick, looking for bodies. The landslide killed 28 people and about 20 remain missing.

According to a Seattle Times article published just after the landslide, the plateau above the soggy hillside that gave way had been logged for almost a century with scientists warning that the slope had become increasingly unstable.

It was advised that logging cease as trees help absorb moisture.

“Our membership continues to fear such an event from the landscape above our homes, especially since removal of trees and the resulting ground water saturation,” said Burgoon. “It is a fact that we are going to have increased rainfall as a result of climate change which simply increases the risk of some major event like that happening.”

Familiar with Washington State landscape from travelling through the area for work, Burgoon says terrain here is similar. More frightening is what happens here when there is a rain on snow event resulting in groundwater saturation.

“And on the ridge, that is the missing link in all the work they’ve done. They haven’t looked at the ground water. We don’t know where ground water is. It doesn’t follow surface water,” she said.

In light of the Snohomish slide, Burgoon resent a letter to the provincial government she first penned in 2012 following the Johnsons Landing slide asking logging in these unstable areas be stopped.

“We live in unstable areas and we don’t need any more water coming off the ridge,” Burgoon told 103.5 The Bridge. “We think prevention is a lot better than facing such a horrible thing like down in Snohomish.”

As Madill compares her own experiences in Johnsons Landing with what happened south of the border, she is impressed at the American resources being directed to the disaster.

“They’re throwing everything possible at this situation, federally as well as state, all kinds of resources and declaring emergencies and that must kick in some financial assistance,” she said.

Madill said at the time of the July 2012 disaster at Johnsons Landing, response was “excellent.” But as the emergency subsided and time passed, support proved lacking.

“That’s when you really find out what resources are available to you and that’s when, on our part, it was a little bit disappointing with how the government dealt with us and continues to be to this day.”

She explained disaster financial assistance, falling under the provincial justice portfolio, is designed to give people “a hand up” when natural disaster happens and insurance doesn’t cover loss. Madill feels let down by this program. Because they live rurally, what people need and is considered a necessity is different from those living in urban areas. On their 17-acre property, they had two homes, a barn and a shop but assistance only covered 80 per cent if the assessed value of the one house.

“Everything else was just a write off, gone,” she said. “We still own the land and pay taxes but we can’t live on it or use it.”

These ties to Johnsons Landing and a serious financial hit keep them stuck. “It’s really difficult because we’re trying to get on with life and make a new home,” Madill said.

She wishes the government would buy up land in the high hazard zone helping to solve the problem.

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