Essay by Dr. Aseem Grover (photos) and Nicole Spence (text)
In 2021, residents of British Columbia felt the raw impacts of climate change influencing extreme weather events. While still recovering from a record-breaking heat wave and wildfire season, an atmospheric river hit several regions of BC on November 14, bringing record amounts of rain and causing widespread flooding, mudslides and rockslides.
As media headlines and imagery captured the evacuations, loss of life and property, and devastated communities, response workers and volunteers established reception centres to provide food, shelter, and care for those in need. While massive resources were deployed to the most impacted areas of Chilliwack and Abbotsford, many individuals in nearby isolated rural and remote communities were quickly running out of essential supplies, but requests for help were a faint blip on the larger radar of the response, requiring a different kind of help and mobilization.
This photo essay highlights a harrowing story of community-minded response and recovery from Hope, a small community situated at the confluence of the Fraser and Coquihalla Rivers, and the determination of a team of health professionals, emergency managers, Canadian Armed Forces personnel, and other response workers and volunteers, to bring needed supplies and medical help to the stranded and storm-isolated community of Boston Bar.
A beacon of hope
With isolation a certainty for the near future, the physical and mental health of those in rural and remote communities were at risk of deteriorating quickly. Health care providers, including Dr. Grover and his team, were faced with the monumental challenge of ensuring continuity of care for the surges in health care facilities – as well as those who were isolated by the disaster in the communities surrounding Hope. Knowing that chronic conditions such as diabetes, can make people more susceptible to the negative impacts of disruptive events, especially when combined with decreased access to health care services, the team began reaching out, using relationships built through years of running rural medicine in the area.
One community that needed help was Boston Bar (population 200), located approximately 60 km north of Hope in the Fraser Canyon which lost its only land access due to a landslide to the south and complete road and bridge access due to washouts to the north. Dr. Aseem Grover, the senior medical director for Fraser Canyon Hospital and the rural family physician for the area, quickly identified the urgent needs of the community members, including chemotherapy, colostomy supplies, and psychiatric medication. Through coordinated efforts, Canadian Armed Forces helicopter transport was arranged to take Dr. Grover and supplies to Boston Bar.
While military crew and aircraft are capable of operating in rough conditions, the community was without power, and finding a landing spot presented the first challenge of the evening. Thankfully, Boston Bar First Nation Chief, Dolores O`Donaghey, followed the helicopter in her car and used its headlights to illuminate a landing spot on a local field. With poor forecasts limiting time availability, the patients were seen, supplies dropped off, and the team started their trip back. The worsening conditions forced the pilot to fly low through the steep, hazard-riddled Fraser Canyon, until being forced to make an emergency landing on a sandbar of the flooded Fraser River, while skillfully avoiding power lines.
With the threat of rising waters and unstable river banks, the military crew urgently needed to move the helicopter to higher ground. Thankfully, a CN Rail team had witnessed the landing and was able to illuminate a safer place for the helicopter. The military crew were given shelter for the night by local residents and flew out in the morning, and from this southern location outside of the travel-restricted area, Dr. Grover was able to get a ride back to Hope.
Hope of a resilient future
As climate-related impacts increasingly threaten the health and economic well-being of our population, the events that unfolded in Hope and its surrounding communities confirm the emerging global trend: rural and underserved communities are the most vulnerable, especially when impacts exacerbate existing non-climatic inequities, such as high rates of chronic diseases, poorer livelihoods, decreased access to health care, and fewer social support structures. While this story ended well, it highlights the need for an increase in readiness and capacity of rural and underserved communities in hopes of a more resilient future.
Dr. Aseem Grover is the site medical director for Fraser Canyon Hospital, and a rural family physician for Hope and the Fraser Canyon Region. Dr. Grover also supports rural addictions and chronic pain services, coordinated through the Hope Medical Centre. Dr. Grover’s medical interests are chronic complex care, rural emergency medicine, and addictions medicine.
Nicole Spence works with Health Emergency Management BC (HEMBC), and worked on the atmospheric river emergency response. With a background in Public Health, and currently finishing a Masters of Science in Disaster Healthcare, her research and interests focus on the impacts to rural and remote health care during climate-related emergent events.