Apocalyptic Glimpses: The Fire & the Flood
“Most disasters are characteristic rather than accidental features of the places and societies where they occur.”
Mike Davis’ Ecology of Fear opens with an impressive inventory of diabolical Los Angeles disasters. Earthquakes, of course, but also tornadoes, floods, drought, fires –both chaparral and urban- mountain lion attacks, killer bees, plague squirrels, “chupacabra,” and –ultimately- real estate speculation.
Davis also considers the fictional destruction of Los Angeles’ in print and film. Sifting 20th century popular culture from the loathsome The Turner Diaries to the ridiculous Independence Day, Davis dutifully tracks the fictional destructive frequency of nuclear attacks, earthquakes, invading hordes, cults, riots, genocide, killer fog, homicidal Bermuda grass and much, much more.
What’s characteristic of Los Angeles disasters?
“The destruction of London –the metropolis most persecuted in fiction between 1885 and 1940- was imagined as a horrifying spectacle, equivalent to the death of Western civilization itself. The obliteration of Los Angeles, by contrast, is often depicted as, or at least secretly experienced as, a victory for civilization.”
In fiction at least, it’s less City of Angels than Gomorrah-on-the-San Andreas. Los Angles gets what it deserves, and no one sheds a tear.
Being both a fringe outpost of the British Empire and a jet-aged suburb cum colony of the Hollywood dream machine, what disasters are characteristic of Vancouver?
Is there a literally or figuratively terminal aspect of the Terminal City? Do fictional representations of Vancouver’s destruction even exist? If there are, what do these say about us?
I searched, and found -too much and too little.
What follows is not a complete inventory of local disasters but -taking my cue from Davis- a consideration of the types of disasters that have struck the Lower Mainland in fact and fiction. The real version occupies this post and the next. A third post will present Vancouver’s imagined destruction.
All large cities are vulnerable to a wide range of hazards both natural and manufactured. But which reflect our local geography and history? Which ones are more likely to occur here? I sought the official view.
While the City notes a number of hazards that could befall Vancouver, it doesn’t distinguish between the potential severity of a tsunami versus a pandemic; so, not very useful.
Curiously, Metro Vancouver does not have a hazard inventory for the Greater Vancouver Regional District –at least not one that I could find. However, it did produce Hazard, Risk and Vulnerability Analysis – Electoral Area A, covering the large swath of unincorporated land from Howe Sound east to Pitt Lake, the university Endowment Lands, UBC, and Barnston Island. To this foundation I add the filtered results of several other municipalities’ assessments. The results are consistently high-risk ratings for the following:
- Fire (“wildland interface” and structural)
- Structural failures & accidents
- Landslides, rockslides & “hydrogeomorphic events”
The history and likelihood of each of these will be considered in turn, ordered roughly and subjectively from least destructive (to date, and in terms of structural damage, loss of life and injuries) to most potentially disastrous . While tsunamis are inherently connected to earthquakes, they are considered separately.
A major popular and marketed characteristic of Vancouver is the proximity of nature or wildland interface. (Note: “wildland” is a more exact term than “nature,” as it includes bog and woodland, the second growth forest of the north shore, as well as the few and remaining pockets of relatively untouched wilderness.) Sailing, skiing, hiking, biking etc etc are just a few minutes away and watch out! BEAR IN AREA!
And fire. Wildland interfaces are prone to fires.
Burns Bog is one of North America’s largest peat bogs. Access is restricted primarily due to fire risk. Peat bog fires can sink metres under the dry peat, spread out and burn out of sight, even in damp conditions. These underground fires can smoulder right through the winter months.
While Burns Bog is some 5,000 years old, its readily available fire history is remarkably recent. There were fires in 1977, 1990 (twice), 1994, 1996, 2005, 2007, and 2016.
Smoke and ash covered the city of Vancouver in the 1996 fire. Debris reached as far as Nanaimo in the 2005 fire, and firebreaks, dikes, a fleet of water bombers, and eight days were needed to control the blaze.
The 2016 fire was relatively small, but required 80 firefighters, helicopters and water bombers to control.
British Columbia’s wildfires are usually limited to rural areas; however, a July 2015 wildfire crossed into the metropolitan region, and ash was reported falling on buildings and cars, from Horseshoe Bay to Vancouver.
As climate change yields rising temperatures and more frequent drought conditions, and our cordon verte is pushed back and thinned-out by ongoing residential and commercial development -a sort of zoning-induced flora alopecia- peat and wild wildfires will likely occur with greater frequency and intensity. How long before a major bog fire forces us to stay indoors? When will we see the North Shore mountains burning?
Catastrophic structural fire is tightly woven into Vancouver’s DNA, dramatically punctuating the historical record.
On June 13th, 1886, just two months after the city’s incorporation, a brush fire set by CPR employees to clear land for property development to the west of the main settlement was fanned by a strong wind and quickly grew of out of control. Dozens were killed and only a handful of buildings survived.
(If it’s not obvious enough, take note: the eagerness to increase land supply was fueled by a strong wind from the west.)
At 10,500 seats, the Denman Arena, was the second largest auditorium in North America, after Madison Square Gardens –a significant feat for a community of 100,000. Constructed in 1911, the Arena hosted curling, boxing, wrestling, lacrosse, soldiers assembling for deployment in the First World War, political rallies by the likes of William Lyon Mackenzie King and the CCF, auto shows, musical performances, and hockey -both women and men’s leagues. In 1915 the Stanley Cup was paraded under the Arena’s rafters by the victorious Vancouver Millionaires. According to hockey historian Craig Bowlsby, “It was a magnet for entertainment. It was probably the most important cultural center in the city …. It was used for everything.” On August 19th, 1936, fire of mysterious origins destroyed the arena, seven adjacent industrial buildings, two homes and fifty-eight small boats, and claimed two lives.
On July 27, 1938, at 1:45 PM, fire broke out at the north end of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Pier D, at the foot of Granville Street. In 40 minutes the entire dock was burning. Vancouver Sun: “Flying cinders, bits of blazing debris and ashes were carried on the east wind to Stanley Park and most sections of the West End.”
“Buildings a block away were kept drenched as the intense heat melted roofing material. Railway ties 50 yards from the blazing pier caught fire.”
There were seven injuries.
Source: BC History
Vancouver’s first five-alarm fire, and the largest in the history of the Vancouver Fire Department, took place on June 3rd, 1960, at the BC Forest Products Mill, near Oak and West 6th Avenue. Three hundred and fifty firefighters battled an inferno fueled by 60 kilometre an hour winds. Ten firefighters and three civilians were sent to hospital. Four city blocks were destroyed.
Source: BC History
On Wednesday, March 4th, 2015, at Port Metro Vancouver’s Centerm terminal, a shipping container containing trichloroisocyanuric acid caught fire and burned for more than 24 hours, generating a chlorine-scented white shroud over the east side of the city.
According to the Vancouver Sun, “Police ordered people to leave or stay indoors in a partial evacuation zone that stretched west from Nanaimo to Main streets and south to Hastings Street, and advised anyone north of First Avenue to close their windows.”
As then City Manager Penny Ballem noted, “It was the closest we have come to a major evacuation across our city in many, many years.”
Thousands of containers of hazardous substances pass through the port every year.
While there are many incidents of arson in Vancouver, it’s impossible to say whether these are statistically unusual, as statistics do not appear to be available.
Structural Failures & Accidents
Aside from fire, major structural failures and accidents –to date- have been relatively rare.
On March 6, 1945, the S.S. Greenhill Park, a freighter carrying barrels of alcohol, lumber and 85 tonnes of sodium chlorate, was docked at the CPR’s pier near the present-day Waterfront Station. A fire -apparently resulting from the illicit siphoning of the alcohol- produced three explosions, shattering windows throughout the downtown core. Eight longshoremen were killed and 19 others were injured.
On June 17, 1958, during the construction of what was then known as the Second Narrows Bridge, the structure collapsed, killing 18 men. A scuba diver was also killed in the effort to recover the bodies. The failure was attributed to an error on the part of a junior engineer that underestimated the weight-bearing capacity of a temporary arm supporting the fifth span of the bridge. The engineer was among those killed.
The bridge was renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing in 1994 to recognize those killed during the June 1958 incident, as well as four others that lost their lives during the construction process.
On April 23, 1988 at the grand opening of a new Save-On-Foods store at the Station Square complex in Burnaby, a 6,400 square foot portion of the roof –which also served as a parking lot- collapsed, sending the parking deck and 20 automobiles crashing into the produce section below. While there were no fatalities, 21 people were treated in hospital. For some time afterward Save-On was popularly known as “Cave-On-Foods.”
In the early morning of April 8, 2015, 2,700 litres of Bunker C fuel oil spilled from the MV Marathassa into English Bay.
A review of the found that the response was delayed for nearly two hours “due to miscommunication, technology woes and confusion over roles and responsibilities between the Canadian Coast Guard and its partners.”
The fuel oil fouled beaches from Stanley Park to West Vancouver, with some reaching New Brighton Park near the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge.
According to the Stanley Park Ecological Society, the intertidal zone surrounding the park supports a food web of bacteria, protozoa, plankton, sponges, worms, seaweeds (including kelp forests), crustaceans, mollusks, fish, river otters, blue herons, eagles, and a wide variety of shore birds and sea ducks. Very heavy oils like Bunker C can persist in the environment for months or even years. In the short term these oils smother marine organisms. In the long-term may cause tumours and chronic health problems in some organisms.
Despite an independent review’s 25 recommendations to improve the response to such spills, concerns remain that there are serious gaps in preparedness.
At the same time, the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan (Trans Mountain) Pipeline would triple the amount of oil transported through Burrard Inlet from the Westbridge Marine Terminal in Burnaby. This oil is currently comprised of conventional crude and diluted oil sands bitumen.
The “English Bay Oil Spill Debrief and Tanker Scenario Planning Workshop,” considers the impact of a 16,000 m3 diluted bitumen spill at First Narrows. While this volume is almost 6,000 times the Marathassa spill, it represents only one-third the carrying capacity of an oil tanker. Such a spill would create a vapour cloud or plume that could pose significant risk to the health and safety of first responders and the public. Consider the 2010 Kalamazoo River, Michigan, diluted bitumen oil spill of 4,200 m3, which resulted in approximately 150 hospital visits for neurological, cardiovascular, dermal, ocular, renal, and respiratory problems.
In order to better help you imagine such a disaster, here are two scenarios prepared by Genwest Systems for the cities of Vancouver and Burnaby and the Tsleil-Waututh:
Of course spills of these magnitudes would generate a significant negative impact to the shoreline habitat and wildlife, as well as the overall ecological health of the area.
“Every once in a while … a Pacific Northwest storm is seeded by a tropical storm from across the Pacific, grows off the California or Oregon Coast, and makes landfall on the North American West Coast. Such was the case in October 1962 when the remnants of Typhoon Freda went extratropical and delivered a knockout blow from northern California to southwestern British Columbia. Canadians refer to the storm as Typhoon Freda, after its previous tropical incarnation. For those in Oregon and Washington, it is the Columbus Day Storm, as it struck on that US holiday, or the Big Blow.”
Freda is the benchmark storm against which all other are measured. The typhoon blew through Vancouver at 90 km per hour, with gusts of up to 145 km per hour. Across the region trees “’snapped like twigs” and “fell like matchsticks.” Stanley Park lost 3,000 trees, including 500-year-old-cedars -20 percent of its old growth. In the city, shattered glass was the primary hazard, produced by flying debris or the wind itself. Freda killed seven people, caused 640 million (current) dollars in damage, and left residents from Vancouver to Hope without power.
On December 14th and 15th, 2006, a windstorm -unnamed here but known as the Hanukkah Eve Wind Storm in Washington State- hit Vancouver with winds reaching 120 km per hour. In Stanley Park 41 hectares -10,000 trees- were flattened, particularly near Prospect Point. The seawall suffered significant damage and was closed.
With gusts up to 90 km/hour, the windstorm of August 29, 2015 was less powerful than its 2006 incarnation but produced considerably more damage. After an exceptionally dry summer that yielded a Level 4 drought rating (the highest category) across the south coast and Vancouver Island, tree route systems were severely weakened and toppling was much more prevalent than would have been the case with normal precipitation. According to BC Hydro, the storm was “the single largest outage event” in the utility’s history, and left 710,000 households -half of its customers- without power.
A study considering the vulnerability of the power grid to windstorms notes a potential for widespread grid damage for wind speeds approaching the 1962 windstorm.
Landslides, Rockslides & Hydrogeomorphic Events
“A great diversity of landslide types occur in the Vancouver region in response to high relief, steep slopes, heavy rainfall, seismicity, and a variety of landslide-prone materials. Rockfalls and small rock avalanches (less than a million cubic metres) are a significant hazard to land use development but their biggest impact has been on the transportation network and the Fraser River fishery. The deposits of larger rock avalanches (greater than a million cubic metres) are common throughout the region and have occurred along major transportation routes in the Fraser Valley and the Squamish-Pemberton corridor in the last 10,000 years …. Channelized debris flows within steep mountain watersheds triggered by heavy rains occur throughout the region …. The expansion of development in the Vancouver region is increasing the vulnerability of communities, transportation routes, the resource base to landslides.”
“Landslides in the Vancouver-Fraser Valley-Whistler region,” S.G. Evans and K.W. Savigny
Of all the potential disasters that can strike locally, landslides and their kin are the most pervasive and specifically reflect our local topography, geology, climate and building activity.
Three distinct physical events occur during a landslide: the initial slope failure, the subsequent transport of materials, and their final deposition. This activity is usually caused by one or some of the following: undercutting of a slope by water causing erosion (eg. heavy rains), human activity too close to the slope, shocks or vibrations caused by mining, construction or nature, and/or the loading of additional weight on to the upper portion of a slope.
“Landslide Risk Management: Partial Risk Analysis for known Landslide Hazard Areas” was a public presentation by BGC Engineering Inc. for the City of North Vancouver identifies seven creeks on the North Shore rated “very high” for landslide risk. On average one landslide occurs every year, usually between November and February. Past consequences have included injuries, fatalities, damage to property and infrastructure, and environmental impacts.
A particular weak spot is the Berkley-Riverside Escarpment, where at least six extremely rapid landslides have been triggered by heavy rainfall since 1972. The most recent slide, in January 2005, swept two houses down an embankment and resulted in one serious injury and one fatality. The house at 2175 Berkley Avenue was assessed as being at low risk of major instability.
In November of 2006 heavy rainfall caused landslides into the Capilano and Seymour water reservoirs, affecting a million people in Greater Vancouver. The resulting boil water advisory –which lasted 12 days- forced supermarkets and restaurants to stop selling produce, coffee shops to close, and fistfights over depleted supplies of bottled water.
On December 7, 2014, a large rockslide in the Seymour Canyon dumped 50,000 cubic meters of rock into Seymour River, at a rapid known as Mosh Pit. The boulder debris dammed the river and formed a lake.
Distinct from land and rock slides are hydrogeomorphic events, where mountain streams flowing down steep hillsides suffer surging flows of water, either clear (clear water floods), heavily charged with debris (debris floods), carrying large amounts of organic debris (debris torrents), or very fine materials (mudflows).
In the fall of 1921, and following days of very heavy rain, a substantial lake had formed behind a damn of logs and rocks above Britannia Beach. On the evening of October 28, the barrier gave way, unleashing a wall of water, logs and stone, killing 37 people and destroying half of the town’s homes.
When next you drive the Sea-to-Sky Highway, take note of the channelized debris flow mitigative structures -the concrete channels framing mountain streams. The 26 stream basins on this route produced more than 14 landslides in the 25 years up to 1984. Between 1981 and 1984 there were five events that resulted in 12 deaths, and the destruction or damage of nine bridges and six houses.
The speed at which these events occur means that they often go visually unrecorded. The details regarding the following are sparse, but it does capture a coastal BC debris slide for a hypothetically fair comparison:
Residential construction on steep slopes continues unabated on the North Shore, from Lions Bay to West Vancouver to Anmore.
The Fraser River is the local focus for clear water floods. The most significant Fraser River flood on record occurred in May, 1894, when rapid snowmelt caused a significant rise in river levels and flooding from Harrison to Richmond. The 1948 flood was much less dramatic, but due to population growth and development caused the evacuation of 16,000 people, and 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed.
The Fraser Basin currently maintains 600 km of dikes, 400 floodboxes and 100 pump stations to protect communities and infrastructure from flooding; however, land use planning is critical to reducing risks, and there is much pressure for continued development in floodplain areas.
It is estimated that a reoccurrence of the 1894 flood could cause “approximately $1 billion in economic damages to City Chilliwack and several billion in economic damages to the City of Richmond.”
Continues in Apocalyptic Glimpses: The Big One & More