Old Fort on landslide alert

Old Fort residents are on evacuation alert as engineers assess a reactivated landslide that has once again destroyed the only road in and out of the community.

The slide, first started in 2018, reactivated Thursday night and is moving up to 18 inches per hour toward the Peace River. It has already destroyed 150 metres of road, the Peace River Regional District says.

“The ground movement has created difficulty for the Ministry of Transportation (MoTI) to maintain the road in a safe and passable condition, and the likelihood, duration, and speed of continued ground movement is unpredictable at this time,” the regional district said.

There are around 150 residents living in Old Fort, who have been told to shelter in place. A plan is being developed to determine how long they will be able to do so, the regional district said. On Saturday afternoon, members of the Charlie Lake fire department were going door-to-door in the community to canvass residents on their preparations.

The Old Fort lookout at the south end of 100 Street remains closed under evacuation order, though there were half dozen people there Saturday morning, including tourists, observing the slide and the nearby Site C work site upstream.

Old Fort landslide, June 20, 2020. The Old Fort lookout at the south end of 100 Street remains closed under evacuation order. - Matt Preprost
The site of the Old Fort landslide in 2018 has reactivated and was moving up to 18 inches per hour as of June 20, 2020. The Old Fort lookout at the south end of 100 Street remains closed under evacuation order. - Matt Preprost

The Old Fort landslide at the end of September 2018 sent more than eight million cubic metres of earth and trees toward the Peace River, destroying one house, several utility lines, and the road. The slide was caused by a failure in the bedrock at the head of the landslide, where a gravel quarry had been operating on the hillside above the community.

A rain storm last weekend drenched Fort St. John with more than 56 millimetres of rain. Reactivated cracking and movement extends 100 metres upslope, and the toe of the slide may be as much as 120 metres below the road, according to early geotechnical reports. 

The transportation ministry has called this a "slow-moving landslide" and says crews and construction equipment are on site. It says no movement has been detected near residences. The road is closed to all but emergency vehicles.

Landslide debris over Old Fort Road, June 20, 2020. Facebook/Bob Zimmer

Old Fort residents were ordered to evacuate their homes for more than a month at the onset of winter 2018 because of the slide. It hadn't seen much slippage since, and the transportation ministry has been monitoring for movement through a network of 10 sensors placed throughout the debris.

At its peak, the slide was moving 20 metres, or 65 feet, in a single day. Last August, it was reported that most recorded movements had been less than one centimetre per day, though four homes have remained on evacuation alert.

Resident Elaine Smith called the recent developments upsetting, and did not plan to leave. There's been little information given thus far to residents, she said.

"So many of us feel like we have PTSD," Smith said. "It's brutal. This just isn't healthy."

In November, the PRRD hired Tetra Tech to conduct hazard assessments of the Old Fort and Buffioux Creek areas, to "determine future development requirements and examine whether emergency alerts and evacuation orders should remain in place."

At the time, board chair Brad Sperling said the province still had not finished its investigation of the slide, and that it was withholding information from the regional district, and releasing highly redacted information requests to the media.

The PRRD filed its own freedom of information request in January seeking all reports related to the Old Fort landslide. The province refused to release them, saying disclosure would be harmful to law enforcement.

That response baffled Sperling, and the PRRD has requested a review from the province’s information and privacy commissioner.

“What does that even mean?” Sperling said a board meeting April 9. “I’m really kind of confused about their response to this.”

Tetra Tech, meanwhile, is expected to finish its assessments of the hillside in June.

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

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