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Bella Coola's 'master of disaster'


Stephen Waugh is responsible for co-ordinating emergency operations in Bella Coola, British Columbia
Stephen Waugh is responsible for co-ordinating emergency operations in Bella Coola, British Columbia

Alexandra Pope, staff writer

June 5, 2011 — For Stephen Waugh, British Columbia's Bella Coola Valley is a little slice of paradise. But sometimes, even paradise is threatened by the elements, and when disaster strikes, Waugh is the guy everyone looks to.

In 2009, the Bella Coola valley was surrounded by fires
In 2009, the Bella Coola valley was surrounded by fires

As the emergency program co-ordinator for the Central Coast Regional District, which includes the Bella Coola townsite, Waugh, who was profiled in the June issue of the Reader's Digest, has to be the authority on everything from fires to floods -- the region's very own 'master of disaster.'

Waugh, a former landscaper who hails from Prince George, took up the volunteer position in 2004 after he saw it advertised in the newspaper.

His job is to co-ordinate the response, from mitigation to evacuation, to any emergency situation, and Bella Coola's unique geographic situation means Waugh has his hands full.

Nestled deep in an inlet 100 kilometres from the Pacific Ocean and nearly 1,000 kilometres from Vancouver by road, Bella Coola's isolation makes it a haven for nature enthusiasts, but it also means the townsite is often at the mercy of the weather.

The Bella Coola River drains a watershed of 2,700 square kilometres -- “Any (rain) that falls in this area will flow out the Bella Coola Valley past the Bella Coola townsite,” Waugh explained.

That makes flooding -- and the related issues of log jams, debris flows and landslides -- the region's biggest threat.

In recent years, the mountain pine beetle has invaded a large portion of the upper Bella Coola watershed, killing the trees and making the forest more prone to devastating wildfires.

Like much of the Pacific coast, Bella Coola also has to have a plan in place for a potential tsunami.

“Bella Coola's a beautiful place,” Waugh said. “We just have to accept there's some natural phenomena we need to be aware of.”

The Bella Coola Valley is prone to flooding, but the worst occurred last year, when 309 mm of rain fell in 36 hours
The Bella Coola Valley is prone to flooding, but the worst occurred last year, when 309 mm of rain fell in 36 hours

Most of the time, Waugh deals with small-scale emergencies, such as avalanches affecting skiers or motor vehicle accidents. But once in a while, he is called on to manage dangerous and rapidly-changing situations in which many lives and properties are at stake.

In the summer of 2009, eight wildfires broke out in the valley.

“It was like we were surrounded by fire,” Waugh recalled.

The only highway into and out of Bella Coola was cut off by the fires, so Waugh had to consider the possibility of evacuating residents by ferry.

“We operated an emergency operations centre for 23 days,” he said.

One of Waugh's biggest challenges was last year's one-in-200-year flood on the Bella Coola River.

“(In September) we had 309 mm of rain in 36 hours,“ he said. “I was out of town, so my wife Cheryl operated the emergency operations centre and I co-ordinated from afar for the first couple of days. We rescued people by helicopter and by boat ... We lost livestock.

“Fortunately (we didn't lose any) people, but it was pretty scary.”

Waugh admits that his job sometimes keeps him up at night.

“It certainly makes me think a lot,” he said. “I'm always aware of the weather, I'm always looking at snow melt and things like that.”

But he also dedicates a lot of time to making sure the residents of the Bella Coola Valley are prepared to take care of themselves in the event of a disaster until he can set his plans in motion. That includes having a kit prepared with 72 hours worth of supplies in the event of an evacuation.

“If people can look after themselves at the outset of an emergency, that allows emergency responders to address those who really, really need help,” Waugh said.

“By helping themselves, they’re really helping their neighbours who may require urgent assistance.”

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