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Gas rationed, travel restricted in parts of B.C. after storm washes out highways

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government is rationing gasoline and restricting travel in southern parts of the province after an unprecedented storm severed highways and cut supply lines.

VANCOUVER — The British Columbia government is rationing gasoline and restricting travel in southern parts of the province after an unprecedented storm severed highways and cut supply lines. 

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said Friday a limit of 30 litres of fuel per visit to a gas station is an important step to maintaining the supply as the province works to bring in more gas by truck and barge from Alberta, Washington state, Oregon and California.

He said the order would apply for 10 to 11 days, and he trusts that people won't be greedy and will keep critical services in mind as they focus on residents whose communities have been devastated by flooding.

The orders apply to residents of Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands, southwestern parts of the province and the Sunshine Coast. 

Non-essential travel has been prohibited on sections of highways 99, 3 and 7 starting Friday. Passage through restricted areas will be reserved for commercial transport of goods such as food, water and medical supplies, Farnworth said.

"As roads are repaired and the backlog of essential traffic clears, restrictions on essential travel can and will be eased. We will be releasing the details on enforcement in short order," he said.

"But my hope is that everyone understands the need for these restrictions and fully co-operates. In other words, if you don't need to be travelling right now, don't. Stay home. And if you can't do that, carpool or take public transit or work from home."

Record-breaking rainfall over 48 hours earlier this week stranded motorists and caused mudslides that severed multiple highways in parts of southwestern B.C. 

The body of one person was recovered on Highway 99 near Lillooet and RCMP have said four people have been reported missing in the area where a search is underway.

An estimated 14,000 people were still out of their homes on Friday and about 4,700 had registered at evacuation centres, Farnworth said.

The rainfall caused major damage to highways and some, like the Coquihalla, will not be rebuilt for several months. Limited access has been restored to others with single-lane traffic permitted.

Transportation Minister Rob Fleming said Highway 3 from Hope to the southern Interior of the province had opened for essential travel and Highway 99 could be open by Sunday depending on whether crews can continue their work.

"I want to emphasize this will not be travel as we'd expect under normal conditions. Crews will be on-site with heavy equipment to continue to repair the roads. And until that work is complete, the traffic is going to be slow on these routes."

Agriculture Minister Lana Popham said 959 farms are under evacuation order and 164 remain on evacuation alert due to high floodwaters and inaccessible roads.

She said 25,000 hectares of farmland has been affected by flooding, including 15,000 hectares within the agricultural land reserve.

Thirty-five veterinarians are on standby and many of them would be coming from Alberta, Popham said. She said thousands of animals have already died in the Sumas Prairie area of Abbotsford, an agricultural heartland east of Vancouver.

Popham said tensions still exist between farmers trying to return to their properties and RCMP officers who are restricting access to dangerous roadways while also issuing permits in some situations.

"The conditions of the roadways are changing and very dynamic," she said. "So, Emergency Management BC has requested more engineers to come in from the military and that may allow us to move forward getting more precise information on the culvert system and the strength of the roadways that farmers need to travel on."

However, Popham said milk is now being picked up as the supply management system had resumed.

Earlier this week, the B.C. Milk Marketing Board had advised dairy farmers in Abbotsford, Chilliwack and the B.C. Interior to dump any milk into manure piles because mudslides and road washouts had made it impossible to transport.

Popham also said farmers would be eligible for disaster relief for the first time and that her counterparts across the country agreed at a recent meeting that support for the agricultural sector needed to include the impacts of climate change.

Henry Braun, the mayor of Abbotsford, said Friday that his city had reversed plans to build a levee to stop floodwaters and will now make emergency repairs to a broken dike by Tuesday. That is when up to 100 millimetres of rain was expected to drench the area already hit hard by the recent downpour.

Braun said that ultimately, the entire dam may have to be rebuilt to protect the Sumas Prairie, which suffered extensive flooding as water gushed in from the Nooksack River from neighbouring Washington state.

"I'm concerned about the Nooksack overflowing its banks again. And if it does, that water's coming right back through Sumas across our prairie. That's what we're trying to stop before the next rain event," he said.

Braun said 64 soldiers had arrived in Abbotsford as part of a contingent of 120 that is supporting the city's efforts as geotechnical engineers were assessing roads and culverts.

A military reconnaissance group had also been dispatched to the provincial emergency operation centre in Surrey, and more than 200 troops were on standby in Edmonton awaiting orders to deploy.

Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said Friday that interim measures are being set up with the United States to move commercial goods to B.C.

"These interim measures are largely intended for Canadian domestic truck carriers that do not normally cross the border in the course of their business," he said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 19, 2021.

Camille Bains, The Canadian Press