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Forty Years of Change

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

The Alberta Creek Debris Torrent: A special series from The Watershed

If you missed the first two instalments of this series, be sure to click through to read A Sombre Anniversary and Forty Years Ago This Week.

The debris torrent that raced down the mountain in the middle of the night forty years ago today wreaked havoc and literally tore the village of Lions Bay apart. The loss of two young lives, three family homes and the displacement of dozens of families marked this community forever.

Aeriel view of the aftermath of the debris torrent in February, 1983. photo credit: Lee Price

But catastrophic events also precipitate change, and the landslide that swept down Alberta Creek that day was no exception.

Howe Sound (known as Átl'ḵa7tsem to the Squamish) is the southern-most fjord on the west coast of North America. The steep and unstable glacial terrain combined with frequent and heavy rain means the region is no stranger to disaster.

Prior to the improvements to the highway that were made before the 2010 Olympic Games came to Vancouver and Whistler, there were frequent landslides and washouts associated with the Sea to Sky corridor. In fact, since the beginning of the twentieth century, more than fifty people have lost their lives in debris torrents and floods that have affected thirteen of the twenty-three creeks between Horseshoe Bay and Whistler.

Residents who lived in Lions Bay before the highway improvements can speak to the difference the changes have made to the safety of drivers along the formerly treacherous route. But did you know that before the Alberta Creek disaster, nineteen of the twenty three bridges spanning the aforementioned creeks were made of wood?

M Creek washout, 1981. photo credit: Anne Bascariol

This picture shows a crowd of reporters after the M Creek bridge disaster that occurred in 1981, two years before the Alberta Creek debris torrent. A flood smashed down the mountain at M Creek, just north of Lions Bay, on October 28, 1981, taking out the bridge. Nine people lost their lives driving off the chasm in the dark before the damage was discovered. That same night a bridge was also washed away at Strachan Point.

The province's emergency program was spurred into action by these events forty years ago, and mitigating efforts began then that continue to this day.

Harvey Creek concrete debris retention structure in 1986.

Three years after the disaster, both Harvey and Alberta Creeks, and later Magnesia Creek had debris flow defensive structures in place. Concrete culverts and retention structures were built to help regulate the flow of water off the mountains, and to help prevent catastrophic landslides.

But in the aftermath, it was Lions Bay residents reaching out to help each other that has had the most lasting impact. In an archived news report by CBC's Bob Gillingham, resident Ghitta Ylrich talked about taking in a neighbour's family, whose home had been destroyed. In Lions Bay "we are one big family," she said. "When something happens, we have to help."

You can read more of CBC's take on the events of that day, including an interview with Trudi Luethy about her husband Rudy's experience as a first responder HERE.

The Watershed welcomes any thoughts or memories our readers would like to share. Comment below, or reach out by email to

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