The record-breaking rainfall had finally ceased by Tuesday morning, Nov. 16, and the sun was shining as the Mission Search and Rescue boat floated above South Parallel Road.
Search Manager Sean Sublett said he had a surreal feeling looking at the neon lights still sparkling atop the flooded Castle Fun Park.
“I’m driving a boat in the place that I should be driving a car,” he said. “I’m looking at the tops of cars left, right and centre. I’m looking at garbage, debris, picnic tables, sofas, peoples’ patio furniture floating right by me.”
A total of 20 MSAR volunteers put in over 770 man hours over three days rescuing people from the evacuation zone of the flooded Sumas Prairie. They took time off work putting in over 20-hour shifts, often running on minimal sleep and food.
As the closest neighbour to the Central Fraser Valley Search and Rescue’s (CFV) backyard, Mission Search and Rescue (MSAR) was one of the first teams to get the call for help.
When that call came in Monday morning, Nov. 15, MSAR was in the middle of several rescue operations along its forest service roads, attending to people trapped by landslides and streams that had transformed into rivers.
Sublett said he sent over half his team of 14 to assist, but when he checked back in with CFV around noon, the situation sounded much worse.
“They’ve got waters rising all over the place, people stranded on top of their cars, farm roads that were just disappearing,” Sublett said. “They needed help, they needed people, they needed boats, they needed as much resources as we could give them.”
He said he shouted at his team from the office to get the gear off the line, get the swiftwater suits ready, and hook up the boats to the trucks – they were headed to Abbotsford.
MSAR had 16 members there by 1 p.m. and most worked until 3:30 a.m. the following morning, Sublett said.
The Abbotsford Police Department (APD) was in charge of the rescue operations when they arrived. Police fielded the calls and compiled lists of names, numbers, contact information and other details for search and rescue commands.
Sublett said it was a dire “juggling act” as to what call to prioritize first.
Given how quickly things escalated, he said he’s surprised there have been no recorded deaths yet from the Sumas Prairie.
Melanie Beerda, a duty officer with MSAR, said at one point on Monday night, a man sped up No. 1 Road with two kayaks strapped to his vehicle. He’d received a call from a friend who was stranded a kilometre away.
The rescue team found the woman sitting on top of her car with plastic bags tied around her head and feet to keep warm, she said.
In another instance, a freezing man started to visibly decline rapidly just after he was rescued from the roof of his RV.
“I grabbed him off the boat and he buckled in my arms when I put a blanket around him,” Beerda said.
Seeing the “graveyard” the flooding had caused, and how much people had lost, was devastating for Beerda.
“You do look at the waterline on these houses, and like, that whole first floor is just done. And it’s not just that, it’s the barn, it’s the shop, it’s the trucks, it’s everything that these people have in their life, and it’s just gone.”
In total, six Lower Mainland search and rescue teams working in the Sumas Prairie that week conducted over 200 rescues, according to Sublett.
He said he’s been volunteering with MSAR for 10 years and has taken multiple swiftwater courses, but felt much of that “went out the window” in the unpredictable conditions.
Larger boats struggled to navigate hazards like fire hydrants, poles, grain silos, irrigation lines, ditches and general debris, Sublett said, adding they had a member on Google Maps trying to help chart through the floodwaters.
“You had to be on the ball the whole time,” he said. “You can hit something and everybody gets ejected out of the boat.”
Sublett said lots of the search and rescue teams had equipment damaged, including a “drastic hole” in the bottom of one CFV boat.
The water itself was a hazard for those who had to wade into it. Sublett said anyone who went in the water had a noticeable funk left on them.
“The swiftwater suits that we were wearing, you could just smell it,” he said. “Human feces, animal feces, diesel fuel, fertilizers, all sorts of chemicals that you might not even know about … I stunk.”
The MSAR team is currently in a recovery period and a “little bit on edge,” waiting to see what the weather brings, Sublett said.
“Everybody knows that at a tip of a hat we could be back out there.”