News

House dismantled to spare it from raging river

The house of Joe and Glenda Allen hangs precariously over the Cottonwood River in the Cottonwood Subdivision near Quesnel. Fast rising water is threatening between eight and 10 homes in the subdivision. Christopher Duffy of Emergency Management B.C. said Monday they were going to assess whether they could move the house to prevent environmental damage to the river. - Debbie HOEKENDYK/Special to the Free Press
The house of Joe and Glenda Allen hangs precariously over the Cottonwood River in the Cottonwood Subdivision near Quesnel. Fast rising water is threatening between eight and 10 homes in the subdivision. Christopher Duffy of Emergency Management B.C. said Monday they were going to assess whether they could move the house to prevent environmental damage to the river.
— image credit: Debbie HOEKENDYK/Special to the Free Press

Update: Emergency officials confirmed that the Allen house has been destroyed to prevent the bulk of it from falling into the Cottonwood River.

Emergency Management B.C. head Chris Duffy said in a conference call with reporters this afternoon that the  "house has been pulled back and dismantled" using an excavator in order to get it "away from the bank."

An excavator was used to do the work on Monday, after the river finished consuming the 30 metres of land between it and the home.

Duffy said it was "a very difficult decision to make; however, that's what had to be done at the time."

One other property in the Quesnel area has been evacuated and 14 others near the Cottonwood River are on evacuation alert as of this afternoon, Duffy said.

He said with last night's heavy rains, the Cottonwood remains a "very active river," and is producing "very active erosion."

All told, Duffy said, there exists a "fairly dynamic situation with river levels rising around the province"

A flood watch was also issued this afternoon for the Bulkley River, and more serious flood warnings remain in place for Willow River and Baker Creek near Quesnel.

High streamflows advisories warning of rapidly rising levels are still in effect for all tributaries in the Prince George and Quesnel areas.

******

Joe Allen, 94, was not there to see the wooden porch of his beloved old house collapse and fall into the Cottonwood River on Saturday. He and his wife Glenda, 70, had been evacuated the night before to a motel in Quesnel.

The couple was also spared the sight of their basement caving in and their roof buckling. That happened Monday. By Tuesday morning, the Allen’s cozy house on five acres – their home for more than 50 years – was literally on the brink of being claimed by the river.

When the Free Press arrived on Saturday, Quesnel RCMP were asking onlookers, neighbours, politicians and media to leave the property because it had become “unstable.” Still there was lots of activity as movers carried out furniture and household goods, SPCA personnel checked for any remaining animals, and Emergency Management B.C. helicopters flew overhead, monitoring the situation below. Several other homes in the area have been evacuated.

Cariboo Regional District Area B director Roberta Faust said Monday the loss of the Allens’ house was a disaster waiting to happen. It could have been prevented, she said, if government officials had stepped up in time to help.

“We’ve known for a long, long time that at least five houses in this area were in danger. In my opinion, they (governments) have not looked after these residents. Bureaucrats in both provincial and federal levels are so tight-boxed that it precludes them from seeing the big picture and their responsibility to taxpayers who pay their salaries. They did not even engage in positive problem solving.”

Faust said taxpayers of Area B, concerned about ongoing river bank erosion problems, paid for an engineering report last year. The report came back recommending construction of spurs to protect all the riverbank properties and armour (riprock) for Allen’s place.

“We’d asked the provincial government many times for help,” said Faust. “When they finally did give us $25,000 for the two projects, it was too little, too late. We never got to use the money.”

She blames clearcutting and channel diversion for much of the problem. In December, Faust said talks with MP Dick Harris broke down when she was told that just a study to consider the issue of putting the channel back to its original course would cost $300,000. Her question?

“What are the environmental costs of having a house float down the river?”

There is a long history, she says. Decades ago the land was owned by the provincial government who later subdivided the area – then part of the town of Cinema – and sold off the lots.

“When the Allens first built their house way back in the 60s, it was set far back from the (Cottonwood) river but over the years because of bank erosion, it ended up where it is,” Faust said.

For his part, independent MLA Bob Simpson who was on site Saturday, showed the reporter a stack of letters from the Allen’s to politicians of the day. The letters date back to the 1960s asking for assistance in stabilizing eroding soil on their property. As well, the Allen’s neighbour Tim Lynes tried for decades to bring the matter to the attention of all levels of government. He has a huge file – but no success – to show for his efforts.

Neighbour Debbie Hoekendyk who lives kitty-corner to the Allen’s property recalls getting a call from the Allen’s home at 2:45 a.m. on May 12.

“The police were there and the Allens had been told to evacuate. So we took their two dogs home with us and some of their possessions. They took their cat with them. It was unsafe to stay.”

Since then, Hoekendyk has been watching and taking photographs of the day-by-day drama. Meanwhile, other homeowners in the area have problems of their own.

“The Cottonwood comes all the way down from the Barkerville Corridor, from where there is still tons of snow melt to come,” says Cec Reynolds. “The media has not been particularly accurate as they talked about the Salmon Rivers while in fact showing footage of the Cottonwood River.”

The Allen’s house is upstream about two to three kilometers and between two bridges, she said. Yet the plight of their neighbours comes as a shock. On the weekend, as bits and pieces of the Allen’s house were being swept away, Reynolds watched helplessly as a lifetime of his hard work floated by her.

“I was sitting on our riverbank with the dogs, watching all the huge trees go by in the water when I saw hundreds and hundreds of Joe Allen’s beautiful, neatly chopped firewood going past and down the river and then a portion of an outbuilding wall – probably his wood shed – which adjoined the house.”

Reynolds and her partner retired teacher Paul Koski have water worries of their own. Located down from Tertiary Rd, over the past few days their property has seen flooding in their fields and outbuildings.

The flooding has come perilously close to their front door.

Mother Nature plays a big part in any flood risk and recent heavy rains and forecasts for more to come, don’t help the situation, Reynolds said.

“For a while we were sitting on an island of dry land with our vehicles parked up the driveway and our boat tied to the front door, ready to evacuate if necessary.”

Koski has built a water diversion on their property with a bulldozer. Monday he picked up sandbags from road services. Spring has brought problems for Cottonwood River residents but it has also brought out a renewed sense of community as neighbour helps out neighbour to save their houses.

Chris Duffy, executive director of emergency coordination for Emergency Management B.C. told the Free Press the Allens' house was dismantled and moved away from the banks of the Cottonwood River on Monday "for reasons of public safety and environmental concerns."

Duffy said Tuesday that construction materials, alone, can present safety hazards. None of the structure was able to be salvaged, he said.

"The consideration was environmental. If you just think of all the things that are in a house – insulation, wiring, broken glass, tiles – there's quite a bit just with construction materials that could pose a significant problem. Then when you think of all the things that may have been stored in the house such as paints, chemicals and pesticides –we're not sure what was in there but the construction materials alone pose fairly significant risks."

Duffy said the Allen family is being assisted by Emergency Management B.C.

"Our sympathies go out to the family in what is understandably a very stressful and unfortunate situation. We are providing emergency social services including food and lodging, as well assistance like storage for their household possessions. And we are exploring options for compensation this weekend."

 

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