Flood risk on the rise in South Okanagan

Rescue teams on alert as creek levels rise throughout the South Okanagan

Swift-water rescue technicians Richard Szabo and Dale Jorgensen from Penticton Search and Rescue practise probing techniques in Ellis Creek near where it empties into the Okanagan River Channel. The team is currently raising money for a swift-water rescue boat that would come in handy even on this seemingly placid section of the creek

Swift-water rescue technicians Richard Szabo and Dale Jorgensen from Penticton Search and Rescue practise probing techniques in Ellis Creek near where it empties into the Okanagan River Channel. The team is currently raising money for a swift-water rescue boat that would come in handy even on this seemingly placid section of the creek

Spring melt water has already chased people from homes scattered around the region and flood season has only just begun, which means local rescue teams are also on high-alert.

“As soon as we start seeing freshet come through our water systems, we basically put our lives on hold and sit with our swift-water gear in our trucks ready to go,” said Hamish Reidie, one of eight swift-water rescue technicians for Penticton Search and Rescue.

The local rescuers form part of a regional team that covers an area from the Canada-U.S. border in the south to Vernon in the north, and from Manning Park in the west to the Kettle River in the east.

The group hasn’t been called out for a swift-water rescue yet this spring, but local waterways have swelled dramatically in the past few weeks, and Reidie advises people to give them a wide berth.

“What you think is a safe place, walking up Penticton Creek or Ellis Creek, can turn into a very big problem in a heartbeat,” he said. “If you don’t have to be there, don’t be there.”

How much longer the threat remains depends on the weather.

The snowpack around the Greyback Lake reservoir, which feeds Penticton Creek, was at 128 per cent of normal as of April 4, according to Len Robson, the city’s public works manager. But the Greyback area is still “in a winter setting,” so the big melt has yet to begin.

“If we end up with heavy rains like we did (last week)… at that elevation, it’s going to bring down a lot of water,” Robson said. “If it’s just sunshine and dry weather, it’s not going to be an issue.”

Meanwhile, workers have already closed one of two dam gates along Ellis Creek to reduce the flow and begin collecting water in that reservoir.

Robson said high flows in Ellis Creek are earlier than normal, “but it’s nothing that concerns us.”

Alarm bells are also quiet at the B.C. River Forecast Centre, but that could change in the coming weeks.

“In general, we’re kind of just entering into that window of snow melt and potential hazard for flooding,” said head forecaster David Campbell.

The agency last week issued, and then rescinded, high streamflow advisories for the entire Southern Interior thanks to unseasonably warm temperatures followed by heavy rain.

While new snowpack data is expected later this week, as of the beginning of April the Okanagan basin was at 104 per cent of normal and the Similkameen basin was at 110 per cent. And again, the weather will dictate how quickly the white stuff liquefies.

There is “an inkling of warmer weather next week,” Campbell said, “so we’re keeping an eye on that.”

Noting the potential danger, the provincial government issued flood safety tips that urge people to keep themselves, their children and pets away from creeks and channels that can fill up quickly, and to stay off banks that can erode and become unstable.

People living near waterways or in low-lying areas should also be aware of changing conditions and make sure drains around their property are kept clear.

Reidie, the swift-water rescuer, offered just a single piece of advice: “As boring as it sounds, do not put yourself in those environments that may cause you un-repairable grief. If you do get swept away, you’re playing with luck.”