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Evacuations from flooded Sumas Prairie a 'surreal' experience, says North Shore Rescue leader

North Shore Rescue's helicopter team spent two days plucking stranded residents, some with medical conditions, from flood-ravaged communities

Flying over the Sumas Prairie at night, over farmland that was now an eerie lake of darkness, North Shore Rescue leader Mike Danks said he’d sometimes look out and see lights from a solitary farmhouse below.

“You’re operating in conditions where you have contaminated water, you have downed power lines . . . where the houses were surrounded by water, and the power was still on, there’s still a light.”

The North Shore Rescue team aboard Talon Helicopters’ Dauphin helicopter were tasked both Tuesday night with getting about 30 of those residents out safely as floodwaters rose quickly, a situation Danks described as often surreal.

“You've got power lines that are all over the place, going to houses, going to sheds, and you've got debris floating in the water. There's trucks and tractors and excavators that are half underwater, and then you got people that are standing outside of their home, and they're flashing a light for you.”

Danks and North Shore Rescue search manager Scott Merriman flew to Abbotsford on Tuesday as part of a mission with Talon pilots flying with night vision goggles.

Close to 200 people were evacuated overnight in that community after local officials issued urgent pleas for residents to leave immediately, saying the main pump station was on the verge of failing. Volunteers and staff worked through the night to build a dam around the pump station to buy more time for evacuations.

A year ago, North Shore Rescue was approved by the province to fly and carry out rescue missions using night vision goggles – the first volunteers in Canada to have clearance to use technology previously available only to police, air ambulance and the military.

The team helped evacuate about 30 residents from six properties in the low-lying Sumas Prairie area of Abbotsford until after midnight.

Danks said in some cases, families being evacuated were surprised by the sudden appearance of a helicopter touching down in the pitch dark.

There were some heartbreaking scenes, he added.

In one of the first homes they went to, there was a family of five along with two elderly grandparents. The grandfather was not able to move, said Danks, and also had dementia. He was on the second floor of the home. “We had to get him out very quickly, in short order and take him to a running helicopter in the pitch black, and try to do that with compassion and care. It was quite an experience.”

Danks said the crew knew all of those they rescued were probably going through the toughest experience of their lives.

“We had children where all they had as a possession was a teddy bear . . . and we're loading him up into the aircraft.”

The team was back out Wednesday morning, this time using the helicopter’s hoist to pull residents from a home completely surrounded by water.

In most cases, those who needed evacuating just hadn’t understood the magnitude of the disaster unfolding around them, said Danks, until they saw aircraft flying around, pulling their neighbours to safety and saw the water levels rising “and the situation getting more and more dire.”

In other cases, people didn’t want to leave their properties. “And it wasn’t until they were absolutely terrified for their lives that they made the call for that immediate evacuation . . . It’s a bit of a risky thing to do. But in this circumstance, it worked out for them. And we were able to get them out.”

In one other case on Wednesday evening, the team flew in to a cabin near Jones Lake, east of Chilliwack, where a diabetic woman had been stranded without insulin for two days. Fortunately her medical condition was okay, said Danks, and the team was able to airlift her out to Abbotsford.

Earlier on Tuesday, the team helped evacuate a family from their flooding home near Merritt, where vehicles had been carried off by the flood and a backhoe was completely submerged.

The team then flew about 10 kilometres southwest to the community of Spence’s where a number of Indigenous elders and their animals were stranded by floodwaters in several homes with limited cell service.

Danks described flying over the flooded areas as being “almost surreal, like something you’d see in a movie. There was just overwhelming devastation. Entire homes that had collapsed and washed into the river, vehicles that were in the river.”

Throughout the evacuation process, Danks said he was struck by the level of commitment and caring coming from all of the volunteers and community members who came out to help.

“We were just one little cog in the machine.”