The world did not end in Oroville, Wash., on Thursday, but many residents panicked as rumors spread that the Similkameen River would surge and flood the town.
About 2:45 p.m., Canadian officials alerted Okanogan County authorities that the Similkameen, which snakes into Oroville from the border to the northwest, had been blocked by a landslide near Princeton, B.C. Then the river blasted its way through, headed to the United States, said Scott Miller, the county’s emergency management coordinator.
“There was a sense of panic building, and dispatch was flooded with calls (from Oroville residents) simply because we didn’t have information,” he said.
Authorities notified radio stations that warned the public of a possible river surge. By 4 p.m., police had cleared the river between Nighthawk and Oroville, where people were panning for gold, Miller said.
Then people waited. Rumors ran rampant.
An Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher said one rumor involved an evacuation of the entire town of Oroville.
She said there were fears of a 14-foot wall of water and floating debris.
“Let’s just say that there were rumors flying,” Miller said, “all of them untrue.”
Canadian emergency officials called their Washington counterparts about 5 p.m. to say there would be no surge.
The scare originated from reports starting at 9 p.m. Wednesday that water levels on the Similkameen River were low near Princeton, Miller said. Then the flow spiked Thursday morning.
So Canadian authorities sent up a helicopter to check things out. They found the slide of rock and mud in the river at the Similco Mine, about 8 miles south of Princeton, Miller said.
After backing up for nine hours, the river found a way through – taking with it an unusually large amount of mud.
Miller said officials expect muddy flows to cross into Washington about 10 a.m. today and hit Oroville by mid-afternoon.
“So there is no threat at the present to life,” Miller said. “However, the potential now is water-quality issues.”
Because the landslide was at a mine, officials in Washington are worried the river was contaminated with hazardous materials.
The state Department of Ecology will respond and test the Similkameen River today for contaminants, Miller said.
The department will also monitor river turbidity, which could endanger fish, he said.
But the incident didn’t “raise any alarm bells” north of the border, said spokesman Glen Plummer of the British Columbia Provincial Emergency Program. It was, “on the scale of things, pretty small,” he said.
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