09/18/2012 02:07 EDT | Updated 11/18/2012 05:12 EST

Johnsons Landing Slide: Experts Warn Land Mass Unstable

Emergency Info BC

JOHNSONS LANDING, B.C. - Another huge chunk of earth and rock is at risk of sliding down onto a southeast British Columbia hamlet where four people were killed by a freak landslide, but experts say only fresh rains and time will tell if danger is truly imminent.

A trio of geotechnical analysts have informed nervous residents of the remote community of Johnsons Landing they believe a swath of mountainside that crumbled last July remains unstable, with a mass possibly as large as the first having the potential to break loose.

"The geotechnical people say it could come down (or) it may never come down," said Dawn Attorp, emergency operations centre director with the Central Kootenay Regional District.

"They're not hazarding any guesses really either, because the whole Johnsons Landing slide event was a totally unique event for the province. Nobody would have expected that to happen but it did."

A father and his two grown daughters died when their home was buried in the July 20 slide, as did a German woman whose body was never recovered.

The community in the scenic Kootenays was comprised of about 40 properties, some more expansive than others. Heavy rains came in the weeks before a creek suddenly burst, sending rock, mud and debris cascading down the mountain and dicing the community into two parts.

Four homes were totally destroyed and another two were partially damaged among 12 properties under an evacuation order.

The community, about 460 kilometres east of Vancouver, has spent the past months mourning the deaths, trying to determine the cause of the slide and figuring out how to move forward.

About 10 per cent of the hamlet was severely impacted and could be in the danger zone again, while it's believed the rest remains largely out of harm's way.

"People who are in the ten per cent are trying to sort out their lives," said Greg Utzig, who has a vacation cabin in Johnsons Landing. "Do I rebuild my house? Do I move on? Is my property worth anything? Am I going to be compensated for its loss if it's declared uninhabitable?

"People are really in limbo."

Utzig, who has also spent 30 years specializing in landslide work, said the mass of land at risk of coming down is just too large to erect physical prevention measures.

His neighbours have expected there could be new slides when the season changes, but the latest assessment is still hard to take, he said.

"What people were hoping to hear was that the risk was low and it wasn't going to happen again," he said.

"But no one has ever said that and I think it's just added more detail that yes, there is still significant risk for some areas."

Several residents have already picked up and moved to nearby Nelson, while others remain hopeful they can rebuild, Utzig said.

Coming to emotional terms with the disaster has involved therapy for some people suffering post traumatic stress disorder.

"It kind of depends where you were at the time the slide occurred," he said. "People who had close calls with death are much more affected than those who weren't there."

Utzig said he feels confident the geotechnicians are taking the right steps and doing so at the right pace.

The latest analysis occurred the first week of September and was revealed to residents late last week.

"Until we go through a season — and even after a season we may not be able to say definitively — but at least we'll be able to see what the land does going through the different weather conditions," Attorp said.

Over the coming weeks, officials plan to meet with the hamlet's 33 remaining residents to discuss their options.

The team has asked a University of B.C. professor to calculate the paths a potential slide might take, which will help better determine which homes are at risk.

A report on the cause of the July slide is expected between this winter and next spring.

— By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver

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