A fleet of 10 helicopters plucked hundreds of stranded campers and staff out of flood-ravaged Kananaskis Country in one of the biggest evacuations in the region’s history.
“By far, this is the most difficult and most disastrous in Kananakis County,” said district conservation officer Glenn Naylor.
More than 1,200 people had to be moved out of the area in treacherous weather and mudslide-ravaged terrain that wiped out multiple bridges and culverts, carved crevasses into highway pavement. Three-hundred and ninety-six campers had to be choppered out of the area, including 100 campers at William Watson Lodge, which offers camping to seniors and the disabled.
“Weather was the biggest challenge. We couldn’t get in because of thunderstorms and snow. But no one was injured or in distress,” Naylor said.
Calling on 220 armed forces personnel, 22 conservation officers and dozens of Alberta Parks staff, the massive evacuation effort spanned hundreds of kilometres of parkland, and ran smoothly for the most part.
Surveying the damage, Naylor said no road or bridge was spared in Kananaskis, leaving incredible scars on roads. Every highway and campground was shut at one point, as Highway 40 was submerged, trapping more than 1,500 people at one point. Mudslides, rock slides and extensive flooding knocked out access, and weather made aid delivery efforts extremely difficult.
“It’s unbelievable. Every highway in every direction has major washouts. In some parts, the river has just taken it away,” said Kananaskis Public Safety Officer Jeremy Mackenzie. “Most trails are damaged or just gone. It’s unprecedented.”
Highway 66, 68 and the Smith-Dorrien Road are impassable, littered with multiple landslides and mudslides. The military used temporary bridges to evacuate Kananaskis Village on Highway 40, working from 5 a.m. to dark on the longest day of the year to get campers and Kananaskis Village staff back to civilization.
After Cougar Creek breached the Trans-Canada Highway, public safety crews didn’t stop moving for 72 hours. Their day began at 5 a.m. Thursday (June 20) when they heli-slung 23 truckers and one RCMP officer trapped on the Trans-Canada Highway from the raging floodwaters.
Public Safetey officer Mike Koppang was involved with the evacuation efforts, plucking stranded citizens from perilous conditions in High River and Okotoks, as his crew conducted nine heli-sling rescues on Thursday. Some flood victims in Southeastern Alberta were mere minutes from being swept away down the river.
“We were really hampered by the weather,” Koppang said. “We were sent out to High River, and started with a girl on the top of her car. Only five centimetres of the car was showing and it was very fast water.”
Flying with Parks Canada Visitor Safety Specialist Steve Holeczi from Banff National Park, the crew then found a couple in rough shape in six feet of raging waters, clinging to a tree. Koppang could only take one at a time using a “screamer suit,” which attaches the victim to the rescuer.
“Once you took off, you had to hope the other person was still there when you came back,” Koppang said. “The water was so deep, I couldn’t touch bottom.”
In all he and Holeczi performed nine heli-sling rescues on the first day.
The storm ravaged the Kananaskis backcountry, and crews were initially only able to drop supplies in to campgrounds, cut off from civilization by rushing waters. Campers had to sit tight through the rain, as they crews had to triage their efforts. Often, crews had no idea what they were getting into before they arrived on scene.
A group of 23 students from a high school in Three Hills were stranded on the Carnavon Lake trail for three days. Helicopter crews needed three attempts to reach the school group, and were finally able to get them out late Friday night thanks to a break in the weather.
Crews also struggled to reach a group of Campers at Three Isle Campground, as every backcountry trail was damaged.
“There was no more Highway 40. There was only a river,” Naylor said.
By Saturday, the Canadian Armed Forces had set up in Bow Valley Provincial Park, laid down temporary bridges and began flying out campers from Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and beyond. The mass evacuation was able to move 1,212 people out of the area, and by Sunday, the final 170 had been moved out to the Stoney Nakoda casino.
Some individuals were hand picked to stay in Kananaskis Country, but the rescues ran smoothly – even though they included some unusual circumstances. Many campers and staff also had to have their pets rescued, as massive 100 pound dogs were lifted
“At one point, I had four dogs, one parrot and six people in my chopper,” Koppang said.
“In the end, some had mild hypothermia, and there were no traumatic injuries. Most were relieved to be out,” Mackenzie said.
By Monday, much of the initial rescue work had been done.
“Considering the challenge, and the weather roads and water were quite a challenge, it went quite well. The disaster plans ran smoothly and having the emergency operation centre at the Canmore Provincial Building, it ran well,” Naylor said.
Koppang said this is his third flood, but it far outstrips other efforts.
“I was involved in 1995 flooding, 2005 flooding and now this. This was leaps and bound bigger than the others,” Koppang said.
Alberta Parks is currently surveying the damage to determine what it can open for the Canada Day weekend. Bow Valley Provincial Park Campground, Sibbald Lake and Sandy McNabb campground will be open, however the clean-up effort will last a long, long time.
“We have to rebuild the Kananaskis Country backcountry,” Naylor said.