BIRTLE — Government officials and curious residents looked on Saturday evening as an embankment several hundred feet high held back water threatening to rush through a valley at Waywayseecappo First Nation.
As of late Sunday afternoon, the embankment holding the water destined for Birdtail Creek, was cracked and crumbling, prompting an evacuation of low-lying homes in Wayway, Birdtail Sioux First Nation and the RMs of Birtle and Rossburn.
The breach is due to the blocking of a box culvert by ice, causing the water to build up behind the former railroad track which is now part of the Trans Canada Trail, about two hours northwest of Brandon.
In the path of the possible surge of water are 12 Birtle and area homes, about 50 kilometres away from the embankment, that received evacuation notices.
Shanna Turnbull who had just finished the sale of her split-level home on Thursday — the "sold" sign still perched on her front lawn — received a notice.
"Usually it (the water) goes up like this and it goes back down," Turnbull said as a dump truck hauled dirt onto her yard to build up a five-foot dike near the swelling creek.
"I’m leaving for the evening and bringing a bag with me for five nights."
Crews in Birtle started working Saturday afternoon to protect Turnbull’s home as well as the town’s lift station next door and the water treatment plant after the RM declared a state of emergency earlier in the day.
A flood gate near the town’s beach was opened to relieve the water pressure, which caused water to gush into the campground and golf course, something the community of 700 residents has to do once every few years according to one long-time resident.
Crews placed several concrete barricades on a midtown bridge — on which a water and sewage line are fastened — to stop it from breaking apart as water inched higher.
Crews from the province’s Emergency Measures Organization and Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation descended on Birtle with 120 aqua dikes.
According to a government-issued flood bulletin, once the embankment near Wayway fails, water could flow as quickly as 20,000 to 30,000 cubic feet per second. Highway 45, which runs through Wayway, was shut down early Sunday morning in preparation for the surge, as well as Highway 359, from Highway 264 to Highway 476, north of Birtle.
Ron Bell, the emergency measures public information manager for both the town and the RM of Birtle, said this level of flooding is unusual for the area, which already saw flood waters begin to drop off.
"It probably just dropped off crest from this spring, which was kind of a normal spring flood, so this water is going to be in excess of near crest," he said.
On Sunday afternoon, Bell said the RM was mulling over who may need to prepare for evacuation in addition to the dozen told to find higher land.
"As things change, we reassess."
Meanwhile in Wayway, approximately 20 people were evacuated by the First Nation and the Manitoba Association of Native Firefighters as the area anxiously awaited how long the embankment would hold.
Wayway Chief Melville Wabash said yesterday "it’s just a matter of time before it bursts."
About five families are staying at a motel in nearby Russell, he said.
The First Nation’s business centre — including the gaming centre, grocery store, health centre and band office — have been closed and evacuated.
A care home with about nine apartments has also been evacuated and elders are staying with family, Wabash said.
"Everybody’s on edge, we’re not sure how this is going to go down and how it’s going to affect our business centre, our homes, our hydro, or roads," he said.
Once the embankment gives way, the government says the water will reach Wayway in one to four hours after the release, Birtle in nine to 12 hours and Birdtail Sioux First Nation in 12 to 15 hours.
Ice pellets were forecast for Wayway overnight Sunday and light rain for today, causing further concern about the integrity of the embankment.
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