September 9, 2012

By Marion Garden

The deluge came without warning and without precedent.  Fairmont Creek is typical of streams in the East Kootenays, with headwaters high in the Stanford Range of the Rocky Mountains, flowing into the Columbia River. Although it had been an unseasonably rainy June and there had been a large winter snowpack in the backcountry, no-one was expecting the event that took place at 4:14pm July 15, 2012.

The first indication something was amiss was a slight discolouration  of the water in the natural hot springs pools at Fairmont Hot Springs Resort. Adam El Wakeel, one of the young lifeguards on duty, did what he routinely did many times, and left the pool complex to venture further up Fairmont Creek to the source of the hot springs to check what was happening with the hot springs water collection boxes. The crashing trees and roar of boulders and rubble rushing down from the Rockies, turning the normally tranquil Fairmont Creek into a raging torrent of mud and debris stopped him in his tracks. He turned and sprinted back to the hot springs pools, shouting for people to evacuate the area while emergency services were notified.

Approximately 500 people were camping at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort RV Park enjoying a quiet rainy Sunday afternoon when the noise of the crashing creek, described by witnesses like the roar of an out of control freight train, alerted them to the seriousness of the situation. The access road to the RV Park, which descends from one bank of the creek to a crossing and then ascends to the RV Park on the other side was swiftly washed away.  The huge boulders and trees careening into the pedestrian footbridge that connected the RV Park to the hot springs area, quickly destroyed that structure too. Within minutes access to the RV Park had been completely cut off. Although there was no damage to the RV Park and campsites which sit safely high above the creek bed, access to the area had been eliminated.

Several families were separated during the event, with parents stranded on one side, and children on the other. Stranded guests were offered complimentary accommodation in the resort’s Lodge, while generous campers stepped in and cared for children separated from their families. RV Staff were also stranded in the park and were able to assist stranded campers, with off-duty Iqaluit RCMP S/Sgt Neil Pearson amongst the campers who were cut off. Although holidaying , S/Sgt Pearson was of great assistance to the those stranded and kept the responders up to date on the safety and well being of the campers.

Incredibly no-one was hurt during the debris flow, but there were some lucky escapes.  Calgarian, Randy Kerr was with his wife and five children near the creek when the wall of debris hit. He was able to climb to safety with his children and their friends, but his wife, who climbed out on the other side of the creek was stranded at the RV Park.

The debris was confined to a steep canyon, and did not damage the hot springs pool structure or the resort Lodge and facilities, and caused minimal damage to the Marble Canyon accommodation facilities located further down the creek towards the town of Fairmont Hot Springs. However, once the deluge exited the canyon as it reached Fairmont Hot Springs Resort’s Mountainside Golf Course, it opened up, depositing tons of rock and debris across seven holes on the golf course. At the golf course, the creek took on a life of its own and splintered into many small muddy streams, crisscrossing through Mountainside Villas timeshares, and meandering through the yards of private homes backing onto the course. Some of the debris flow eventually reached Highway 93/95 forcing the road to temporarily close.

Within a matter of hours, the flow subsided and excavators and workmen were immediately drafted in to start work re-establishing campground access. Digging late into the night, and starting at dawn the next day, access was re-established at 2:30pm on July 16. The guests who were isolated began moving in and out freely in their vehicles, and separated families were happily reunited.

The aftermath of the debris flow revealed infrastructure damage to the resort’s water systems which unexpectedly kept the RV Park, Lodge and hot springs closed for several weeks. The drinking water reservoir on Fairmont Creek that served Fairmont Hot Springs Resort’s RV Park and Lodge had been irreparably damaged by the debris flow. Substantial work was undertaken to dig 1.5 km of new water line and connect the resort’s water system to the village of Fairmont Hot Springs’s reservoir located further up the mountain utilizing a different mountain creek.  The source of the natural hot springs was also buried by debris forcing the closure of the hot springs pools. The area where the naturally heated mineral water bubbles up from the earth’s crust is located alongside Fairmont Creek, and the landscape had been completely transformed by tons of rubble. Using GPS coordinates, the location of the original three hot springs source boxes was pinpointed, and 18 feet of debris had to be removed until the original hot springs boxes were uncovered. Damaged beyond repair, new cedar hot springs boxes were built to capture the hot water, and a modern system of pipes and valves was installed. The excavated debris was used to construct a large protective berm to ensure the hot springs source remains safe.

After weeks of construction to repair the damaged water systems, the RV Park, Lodge and hot springs pools reopened for business Friday August 3, 2012. Additional construction and landscaping has been required to repair the damage to Mountainside Golf Course.  Working with the renowned golf architect Doug Carrick on plans to improve the course using the natural debris, the re-opening date is set for Friday August 31, 2012.

Walking around Fairmont Hot Springs Resort, the scene of the well-publicized debris flow only six short weeks ago, evidence of Mother Nature’s sudden display of power is difficult to find. The RV Park is full of summer campers, the hot springs pools are busy with guests enjoying the therapeutic waters and the resort grounds are bustling. Plans are underway to rebuild the  RV Park pedestrian bridge and Mountainside Golf Course, is gearing up for a grand reopening, ready to unveil new course improvements made possible with the materials unexpectedly  ‘gifted’ to the course. Except for some mud and debris still visible in the creek bed, most of the clean-up is complete and life at Fairmont Hot Springs has returned to normal.

Fairmont Hot Springs RV Park is the top-rated RV Park in the Canadian Rockies. (Good Sam RV Travel Guide) Open April through October, the RV Park is located beneath the majestic peaks of the Stanford Range and offers 244 sites (212 fully serviced) only a short walk from Canada’s largest natural mineral hot springs.

Reservations: 250.345.6033


5225 Fairmont Resort Road, Fairmont Hot Springs BC

GPS: N 50.32866 W 115.84188

September 9, 2012