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Photo Essays

The Big Soak

As floodwaters engulfed Abbotsford’s Sumas Prairie, I went there to gather images and hear from people affected.

Joshua Berson 22 Nov

Joshua Berson is a Vancouver-based photographer who partners with a range of clients who share values of social justice, equality and diversity. These include progressive political parties, unions, women’s groups, environmental organizations, and international and community-based non-profits.

In September of 2020, as the choking haze of wildfires shrouded British Columbia’s largest city, I documented the eerie scenes for The Tyee in a photo essay called “The Big Smoke.” In June of this year, as the heat dome suffocated the region, claiming hundreds of lives, I ventured out again to record “The Big Sweat.” On Thursday, I went to Abbotsford in search of folks enduring The Big Soak.

I knew Sumas Prairie, which is located on an old lake bed in Abbotsford, was immersed. But the images I’d seen of the flooding in no way prepared me for the astounding amount — and depth — of the water. Submerged: The Trans-Canada highway, cars, golf courses, homes, businesses, livestock unable to escape the deluge, and a sense of placid permanence in B.C.’s most productive farm country.

None of the people I spoke with in Abbotsford were prepared for anything of this scope. Yet most understood that there is a direct linkage between climate change and this latest calamity. Here are some of the people I met, and what they shared.

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Riely Mills (top photo) lives in Abbotsford, beside the flooded Sumas Prairie.

“We knew that the Sumas Prairie was a lake beforehand. We are at a higher elevation, but you don’t really think that the water would fill in so quickly and so fast, all the way up to our building. The water came up the steps almost into the lower parking levels of the building. We had no access outside the back door. And then you start to think about the foundation of your building. We are on the evacuation border. Our power went out but we just stayed home.

“My older son, he’s 3½ and he had a moment yesterday where he was, ‘What is happening?’ And then there was a fire yesterday and black smoke started to fill the air. We woke up at 7 a.m. with big explosions, one after the other. You forget that kids take all this inside and don’t express themselves like adults.”

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Ron Jansen runs a family-owned log hauling and trucking business. He lives in Abbotsford beside the Sumas Prairie.

“My wife was really worried about flooding here. You know what, I’ve seen a flood before but never like this. In 1990 we had flooding but not like this, not this magnitude. We were out of power for two days here, which really sucked. My 70-year-old dad’s got no power. He’s still on the farm but he’s got a generator. I’ve got one too. But I am losing $2,000 a day. How would you have insurance for any of this, really? Lots of people I know lost animals, the house below is flooded out. The Coquihalla, it’s gonna take them months before they get it open. I was just starting to get ahead.”


Ellen Paynton works at the Blenz coffee shop on Whatcom Road above the Sumas Prairie.

“I moved here from Williams Lake right after the super bad forest fires in 2019 and went directly into pandemic. We were evacuated from the forest fires and never in a million years did we think we’d be evacuated here because of flooding. I was pretty ignorant about the Fraser Valley. It’s a beautiful place, gorgeous and lovely, but I didn’t realize how fragile it could be. But that’s the planet. It’s much more fragile than we expect.

“The first day of the flood, we were super, super busy here at the shop, because when people are in a state of disarray, I feel, they turn to objects of comfort. And for many, that’s coffee. We saw a lot of very anxious people. And then the power went out and we were closed for two days. Save-On was shut down all day yesterday. People started to go into panic mode.

“It’s hard to see thousands of animals dying. Thousands of beings have left the planet, and traumatically. We think that we are the top of the food chain, but I think it demonstrates how vulnerable we are. What we are experiencing is what people in the developing world are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. But suddenly it’s important to us because it’s on our hemisphere. I’m usually a very positive person, but I don’t think that there’s an end in sight.”


I spoke with Joyce Deruiter, wearing a red hat, who was out with her sister Grace Brouwer surveying the flooding from a high vantage point.

“I used to live on the Sumas Prairie and that place is now underwater. My uncle and aunt were evacuated by boat. I have another uncle that hunkered on the second storey of a barn with his two dogs. He’s just a bit of a loner man and he didn’t want to leave.

“When will we learn? All those tiny island countries have been impacted and nobody believes it.”

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Braden Leystra (top photo) lives in Abbotsford with his dog Copper.

“Why were they not issuing text alerts? They sent them out a couple of times to test it out, like a whole bunch of times to the point where it was getting kind of annoying. And now that there’s an actual disaster they don’t even issue one of those alerts.

“I am not one of these people who say, yup, this is 100 per cent climate change and we need to take drastic action immediately. We are coming off a summer of record heat, record forest fires, and now we are getting into the rainy season and we are getting record rainfall. But me, I am hesitant to connect those dots.

“I am a scientific person. I do value science. And there is a lot of good science out there with respect to climate change. We had a bad summer in terms of fire and heat, and then we have flooding. I am not sure if that’s a smoking gun for climate change. But it does seem to hint towards that. If anything, it’s eye opening that our critical infrastructure is so fragile.”

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Helge Simonson took refuge at an evacuation centre near the Abbotsford airport on Tuesday.

“We live tight up against Vedder Mountain. There was a wall of water coming down the road because the pumping had shut down. So they said, either you get out now or you’ll be up to your neck in water. I said OK and ran to the helicopter and just made it out in time. The volunteers here at the centre have been wonderful. But I was hoping to get out of here yesterday, Today, same thing.

“I have lived on Vedder Mountain for 14 years. I have lived in B.C. for 67 years. I emigrated from Norway, and I have never seen weather like this. It’s got something to do with global warming. We’ve been ignoring it for years. It’s catching up to us. Plus that heat spell that we had. I am hoping to have a heat spell right now [laughs].”


On my way home I reflected on what I saw in the faces of the people who were kind enough to tell me their thoughts on a wet and near-freezing day amidst catastrophe. I recognized their expressions. I have worked in areas of conflict. I have met other people unable to cope with the enormity of their current situation. Even those largely spared carry a burden. What to feel when your house is fine but your neighbour has lost everything?

The immediate impact of the flood is overwhelming. The recovery is going to be even more demanding and phenomenally expensive. The people of Sumas Prairie were already challenged to make a living in the highly unaffordable Greater Vancouver. And farming can be a risky livelihood under normal circumstances. In the months to come, our fellow citizens who’ve been victimized by flooding are going to need our help.


A dozen more news and analysis pieces that may interest you:

Mapping the Flood in Abbotsford
From the long-gone Sumas Lake, to our worst-case flooding scenario. A disaster visualized. By Christopher Cheung

It’s a Disaster, and the Internet Is Flooded with Jokes
And that’s a good thing. By Em Cooper

Expert Warnings of a Flood Like This Go Back 20 Years
Steve Litke of the Fraser Basin Council long ago sounded alarms about the risk to The Tyee and others. By Andrew MacLeod

How BC’s Food System Will Be Affected by Flooding
No need to panic buy. But farmers and distributors face major challenges in the months ahead. By Jen St. Denis

The Future of Flooding in Canada
We’ve left ourselves exposed by transforming our landscapes. Here’s why to expect more catastrophes like BC’s. By Ed Struzik

What Will It Take to ‘Future Proof’ BC?
A recent report warned governments aren’t adapting to climate change. To be proved right by massive flooding is ‘not a good feeling,’ says a researcher. By Michelle Gamage

Flood Cuts Off Patients from Cancer Treatment, Dialysis and Needed Care
The recent disaster shows gaps in the emergency system for disabled people and those with serious illnesses. By Moira Wyton

Despite Floods and Fire, School in Abbotsford Goes On
Two-thirds of schools opened yesterday, some without ventilation or heat for several hours due to smoke warning. By Katie Hyslop

With BC in Emergency Mode, People Who Use Drugs Need Help Now
Advocates and doctors fear floods will disrupt medicine access: ‘The systems that are set up are fragile to begin with.’ By Moira Wyton

Premier Vows to Make BC More Resilient to Climate Change
Government declares a state of emergency and asks for federal help after devastating floods and landslides. By Andrew MacLeod

Who Knew?
We’ve let our leaders duck disaster plans. Now we’re paying for ‘organized irresponsibility.’ By Crawford Kilian

Stories from the Deluge
We’re collecting accounts of flood survival from Tyee readers and the wider public. We’ll be adding them here as they roll in. By andrea bennett and Amanda Follett Hosgood  [Tyee]

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