Looking back: Surviving the snowstorm of ’96 in Chilliwack

As Chilliwack braces for more snow this weekend, here’s a look back at a storm that brought Fraser Valley to a halt

This archive image ran in the Jan. 7

This archive image ran in the Jan. 7

Chilliwack was looking forward to a white Christmas in 1996, as temperatures plummeted and snow was headed this way.

But what followed was considered the worst storm in 75 years, and led to a local emergency scenario. Record levels of snow fell, from the Fraser Canyon to Vancouver, and Chilliwack was at the epicenter of it all.

The TransCanada Highway was closed for three days, causing quite an uproar among local politicians. The Fraser Canyon was closed too, with more than 150 avalanches burying the highway with snow up to 23 metres. Truckers were rescued by helicopter after days of being stranded. Food and supplies were airlifted to Boston Bar, which was completely cutoff from road transportation.

And in Chilliwack, more than 2,000 people were stranded and housed in shelters and private homes for days on end, while an army of volunteers and emergency personnel worked around the clock. As the editor of The Progress wrote at the time, it was a storm that caught the region with its snowpants down.

But Chilliwackians showed their true grit and spirit of community, leading to numerous heartwarming stories being written by reporters of the day, Mark Falkenberg and Robert Freeman. These stories are all chronicled in The Progress online archives, thanks to the arduous work of the Chilliwack Museum and Archives staff.

It started with the predictions of a white Christmas, from Roger Pannett, a volunteer weather observer.

It had already been a record-breaking winter, with Dec. 22, 1996 being the coldest in recorded in history at the time, at minus 5.6 celsius and a wind chill factor of minus 26 celsius. Snowfall had already hit 53.3 centimetres, well above the average of the time.

By the following week, the snow arrived. On Dec. 28, the highway was closed and the stranded were sheltered here. City workers, highway crews, first responders, soldiers, shelter workers and volunteers all pulled together for the four days of the storm.

Emergency Shelter:

About 320 people stayed at Evergreen Hall on the Saturday night, and that number swelled to 1,000 by Sunday when busloads of people showed up.

All were back on the road by the following Tuesday, having been fed by the Salvation Army during their sheltered stay.

Their first night was spent sleeping on the floor, but the army brought in cots for the rest of the nights. Army vehicles also brought in soup, chili and stew. Local businesses donated food as well. Among the travellers were a handful of infants, about 20 dogs, and a parakeet. One couple was even caught stranded on their honeymoon.

Soldier relief:

Soldiers came to the rescue of Malcolm Forsythe, who was on dialysis treatment at the time. He had missed an appointment on Saturday because of the weather, and by Monday was falling quite ill.

The highway to Abbotsford was still closed, and the ceiling was too low for the air ambulance to fly. Forsythe and another patient were both in a dire, life or death situation, and it was decided to call the Armed Forces for help. They trucked the two patients through the snowy roads to Abbotsford for dialysis, and a nurse at the self-care dialysis unit kept it open for 24 hours to assist them.

It was at this time that CFB Chilliwack was closing, but the difference the engineers made during the efforts was not enough to convince then-Defence Minister Doug Young to keep more soldiers stationed at the base. Then-MP Chuck Strahl said the comments from Young “ought to raise the hackles of everyone who listened to his arrogance,” and that the solders prevented a difficult situation from becoming a disaster.

Rescuing farm animals:

Chilliwack Search and Rescue came to the aid of animal lover Una Freed at Prest and Bailey. She was cut off by 14-foot snowdrifts, and unable to check on her many farm animals in the frigid weather.

The search team heard about her plight and showed up at her door. They cleared a path that allowed her to reach her animals, and she learned they all had survived. But it would be days before she would dig out her cars to leave her home. “You’ve got see this to believe it,” she said. “It’s just unreal.”

Herculean efforts:

Chilliwack General Hospital had to keep operating, especially as the potential for storm victims rose with each passing day.

So, city plowing crews cleared more than 50 access paths from employees’ or doctors’ homes to the nearest major thoroughfare.

“These were absolutely critically required people,” said CGH’s vice president of program support at the time. Crews even cleared access for a family so they could visit a dying relative.

Building damage:

School district employees were dispatched to the former Rosedale middle school, to deal with a cracking roof. In some areas of the multilevel roof, snow had piled up taller than the workers themselves.

A building on Railway Ave. completely collapsed under the weight of the snow, and Jack Vandervyen’s farm on Keith Wilson suffered damage, among others.

Disaster response:

The people behind the rescue efforts were snowed in themselves, and coordinated the early response to the storm via cell radio and home telephones. They included Pat Harkness as the Provincial Emergency Program coo-ordinator for the Fraser Valley, and Chilliwack emergency officials Ralph Keen and Jim Vickerson.

Buses should have never come, Keen said. He added that a pre-warning system needed to be developed that would alert drivers to bad weather up ahead. This, of course, was well before high-speed internet, Facebook, and smart phones.

Follow up:

Harkness called the entire event “really a good slap in the face to Chilliwack,” during a post-mortem meeting of relief measures. Thirty officials gathered a week after the storm to discuss the need for a better response system, and better communication between agencies.

What they decided was there were alarming gaps in how they responded, even if overall the efforts were well carried out.

The Chilliwack Fire Department noted feeling left out, and not notified of what was going on. Search and Rescue said there wasn’t overall coordination in the relief effort.

While noting there were no deaths related to the storm, Keen pondered how things could have gone better.

Another problem was the complete closure of the highway, which kept some crew members from responding. However, high winds were creating drifts several feet high only minutes after being plowed.

It all served as a reminder to residents that winter can pack a wallop in Chilliwack, even if it doesn’t do it often. And, as they say, it’s best to always be prepared.

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