Residents of the Nicomen reserve, located about 17 kilometres outside of Lytton, B.C., have been cut off from road access for about one week after heavy rain drenched southwestern British Columbia.
About 53 residents — including three elders — have decided to stay at the Nicomen reserve, which did not issue an evacuation order, said Norman Drynock, chief of the Nicomen Indian Band. One family did manage to leave for Kamloops because one of its members is 36 weeks pregnant.
“When we saw that we’re going to be landlocked, we started making plans on what we’re going to do,” Drynock said in an interview with the National Post.
The reserve lost the ability to travel by road when an access bridge connecting the reserve to Highway 1 was damaged on Nov. 15 by a rising tributary of the Thompson River. Despite efforts to replace the bridge, residents are further restricted by flooding on Highway 1 between the communities of Lytton and Spences Bridge.
A helicopter landing zone has been set up at Nicomen reserve for air ambulance access and supply distribution. The reserve could also receive two generators following a need assessment, but fuel supplies continue to be a concern.
Drynock said he is moved by the support the community has received. B.C. government and Indigenous agencies worked through the weekend to ensure helicopters arrived with food, toiletries, hygiene products and water for the community, which remains under a boil water advisory.
Helicopters from the Canadian Armed Forces, British Columbia Ministry of Forests and even private businesses have arrived with supplies.
“There’s just a slew of people that are making this possible for us to stay home. To sleep in our own bed,” said Drynock. “The humanity, the Good Samaritan people out there, I really appreciate all the offers that are coming in. It really goes to show that when things happen, there are good people out there who are willing to step up.”
Drynock adds that the Nicomen reserve is also receiving support from B.C. Hydro, which is working diligently to deal with anything that may cause the reserve to lose power.
“I’m really, really, grateful about this,” he said.
The access bridge was damaged by erosion, said Drynock, when a groundmass fell about 40 feet into the river, straightening the current’s path to erode the base of the bridge.
Nicomen residents became aware of the damage around noon on Nov. 15, when a councillor was cleaning the road due to flooding concerns.
“He went down and then he came back up and he’s like ‘Norm you got to come down and look at this’. And the look on his face, I couldn’t ignore it,” said Drynock.
The river was moving so fast that when Drynock went to take pictures, he said he could feel the vibrations in his feet.
“The sound and the sight, I’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Drynock. “Before it used to be fast, you wouldn’t want to try fishing in it or swimming in it. It was mean then, but this time it was ferocious, it was eating the banks.”
REPAIR, AID EFFORTS
Through a coordinated effort between the British Columbia Ministry of Transport and Infrastructure and the British Columbia Ministry of Forests, the currently unusable bridge was to be removed by crane on Nov. 22. Following that, a temporary bridge is to be erected and then a permanent bridge.
Since the reserve lost road access, a landing zone for helicopters was set up on Nov. 17. The landing zone was established on the Nicomen reserve using GPS coordinates.
Initially set up for air ambulance access, the landing zone is also being used by emergency services to distribute food and supplies. Nobody on the reserve has required air ambulance services at this time.
The First Nations Emergency Service Society will be sending someone to assess the needs of the Nicomen reserve, Drynock said.
This assessment may result in the distribution of two generators to the Nicomen reserve. One generator to be used at the pump house to ensure the water supply, and another that could be used at the band hall to power fridges and freezers.
The generators could be used as backup power sources in the event of further damage to the reserve causing a power outage. Drynock said he was notified Sunday that someone would come to assess the situation within 72 hours.
Drynock says that Nicomen residents lost thousands of dollars worth of food during the wildfires this past summer.
Two individuals on the reserve previously worked as firefighters for the British Columbia Ministry of Forest Protection and have worked with long-lines before, said Drynock, which is a method of connecting equipment to a helicopter for transportation. They would have the knowledge necessary to unhook equipment delivered by helicopter, he explained.
Drynock said he is unsure how long the current fuel stores will last, adding that he has five-gallon jugs of both gasoline and diesel and a small reserve in tanks. This is because they are driving to distribute food and to assess damages. Fuel usage will depend on how frequently they need to drive.
DECISION TO STAY
Drynock says the decision not to issue an evacuation order was made on Nov. 15 based on two factors. The first being the opinion of elders in the community and the second being the desire to keep the community together.
There are two elders living directly on the Nicomen reserve, one woman about 61 years of age and one male about 76 years of age. A third elder lives in a separate section of the reserve, who is about 78 years old.
One of the elders living on the reserve said he didn’t want to leave, said Drynock, a sentiment shared by the other elder living directly on the reserve. However, the elder living adjacent to the reserve travelled to the central area and indicated her desire to stay, which solidified the decision.
“To me that was our decision not to declare an evacuation order,” said Drynock.
Additionally, if an evacuation order had been issued, it would be challenging to track down residents to provide support, “especially if we’re away from our systems here, like our computers and the stuff that’s in our servers,” said Drynock.
The decision not to issue an evacuation order now appears to be best for the community, said Drynock, because Emergency Support Services in the City of Kamloops were overwhelmed. This was due to a large number of people seeking assistance from Merritt and other surrounding communities.
Drynock added that Emergency Support Services in Kamloops is being overseen by volunteers without access to a computer system. He says that he believes their current situation now seems preferable to the one many evacuees are currently facing.
“The volume of people coming in, it was just too hard on them,” said Drynock. “So we’re glad that we never went out there because our vulnerable people would have been amongst that.”
One family that left
However, one family did leave Nicomen as one of its members is 36 weeks pregnant. Drynock said she was helped across the river by young men and got a ride on the other side and received Emergency Support Services in the City of Kamloops. Drynock added that travel costs for that family will be taken on by the Nicomen Indian Band.
“We don’t want them having to pay for their stuff and whoever helped them will have to be compensated, because Christmas time is coming and we don’t want this event to take away their Christmas,” said Drynock.
Inside Nicomen, Drynock says residents are also working to support each other.
“Everybody was offering to do something that I came across,” said Drynock. “Young men wanted to stack their elders’ wood. After they were done stacking the elders’ wood, they wanted to stack everybody’s wood.”
Last summer during the wildfires, the National Post reported that Drynock stayed back to protect his house from the fire. He anticipated his house might be the only one to remain intact, he said, but not a single house on the reserve was lost to the blaze, giving him some perspective on the challenges Nicomen now faces.
“We are lucky enough to be dealing with what we’re dealing with now,” said Drynock.