When the Summer Brings Smoke

When the Summer Brings Smoke

On a normal day, when I glance out the window in my office, I’m greeted by a series of graceful swoops framed against a bright blue sky. I have come to love these mountains, though they can’t compare to the craggy majesty of the mountains we saw in Scotland. Smaller and blunter though our mountains may be, they’re a constant reminder that we moved to a place of beauty.

But lately when I glance out the window, I’m confronted by a wash of grey. On good days, the sun still penetrates the haze, allowing the day to feel bright. On bad days, the thickness of the smoke cloud chokes even the brightest portion of the day, making everything feel dreary and overcast.

A few weeks ago, I took a nap during midday. I fell asleep around 3 PM and woke around 6, but the relative light level never changed. For a moment, I felt disconnected from time, as if the world beyond my doorstep was a dream.

At night, by the light of the street lamps, we catch glimpses of tiny particles dancing like snow in the light beams. Though we never really see the ash particles, we can scrape our fingers along out outside table and lift them away dark with the residue.

It’s mid-August, and since late April we’ve seen only a smattering of raindrops. The unwatered grass in the backyard is dead, and the mountains – when we can see them – are capped with brown.

Beyond the sheltered oasis of the valley in which we live, the map is awash with red lines indicating evacuation zones.

It’s wildfire season in British Columbia.

Wildfires are a fact of life here

On May 1st 2016, a wildfire ignited southwest of Fort McMurray, Alberta, a city of some 60,000 residents. It was unusually hot and dry in that area at the time, causing record-setting high temperatures.

The fire spread so quickly, people who told to stay put were later given mere moments of notice to evacuate. In the aftermath, evacuees took to Twitter to describe not having time to drive home from work to rescue family pets and fires closing on the highway as people hurried to reach safety. In all, some 88,000 people were evacuated. Many spent the next several days relying on a small trickle of local firefighter reports and attempts to ping the modems in their house to determine if they might eventually have houses to return to.

The Fort McMurray wildfire destroyed some 2,400 buildings and spread across 590,000 hectares (1,500,000 acres) before firefighters got it under control on July 5th.

My husband and I had only lived in British Columbia for a little over a year when this tragedy took place. And it transformed our valley-nestled city overnight. Every local business set up a donation drive. And everyone donated, even if it was only a few dollars at the checkout till at the grocery store.

Because everyone in our town was keenly aware that one day, the town that burned, the lost homes and belongings and displaced family members, might be ours.

At the time, Fort McMurray was one of the fastest-growing communities in western Canada, due at least partly to the nearby oil sands. My husband had only just turned down a job in that area, which meant the tragedy struck doubly close to home. It felt like we dodged a bullet. But we were keenly aware that bullet might one day hit us anyway.

There are things we have to accept

Wildfires are a natural part of any forest’s lifecycle. The 2016 game Firewatch did a good job of addressing the realities of fire in massive wooded areas. The fact is that humans simply can’t monitor every mile of woodland. In the US and Canada, focus is limited to a handful of national park lands, heavily populated areas and transportation routes.

But it’s also important to recognize the role that humans play in the increasing danger of forest fires. For one, the majority of fires can be traced back to human activity. No one has confirmed what started the Fort McMurray fire, but experts believe it was probably human started. And because humans interfere in the natural cycle, preventing areas from burning to the best of our ability, that means there’s more to burn when a fire does spark.

It’s also important to acknowledge the connection between forest fires and global climate change. Between 2000 and 2004, wildfires contributed to 40% of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. In 2003, wildfires represented 20% of emissions in British Columbia and 60% in Manitoba. And we can’t possibly hope to prevent such fires from igniting – especially in hot, dry areas where a single spark of lightning can cause a massive blaze.

And as the effects of climate change become more severe, so do the effects of wildfires. This year in British Columbia, at the time of writing, there have been over 1,500 fires – more than double the 10 year average of 642 annual wildfires. And according to the dashboard, there have been 28 new fires this week, 8 of them in the last 2 days.

What does the future hold?

Four days ago, a lightning strike ignited a fire near a pivotal highway connection a few hours down the road from us. A day later, the fire jumped the highway and joined a smaller fire burning nearby. For us, the fire meant not visiting friends who live on the other side of the burning area. But for thousands of people, those flames threatened homes and businesses, forcing them to evacuate and hope for the best.

This is after two small towns have already burned to the ground during the summer fire season.

During the fire crisis in Australia and later in the Amazon, I watched my social media feeds explode with concern over the effects of climate change and the dangers people faced. Now, as I watch dark clouds accumulate and dissipate outside my windows, I note distinct silence from those same parties. It seems only those of us affected by the blazes, worried about friends in evacuation zones and hoping for a clear glimpse of the sky, are talking about these events.

We pray that the fall will bring the usual amount of rain, soak the dry countryside and allow the fire fighters to finally get the nearby wildfires under control. We pray that next year will be better and remind ourselves that it’s been a few years since we experienced smoke this heavy.

In the mean time, we bask in the handful of clear days we receive – gentle reminders of the reasons people decide to live out here despite the dangers. We try not to think about ash particles falling like snow or the fact that it might one day be our house in the path of the flames. And we hope that people will care enough to make big changes before it’s too late.

2 Replies to “When the Summer Brings Smoke”

  1. How was your breathing on those smoky days?

    I had trouble on some of them, and I don’t even have asthma or any other lung or heart issues. I can’t image how much harder it was for people who do have those underlying health conditions.

    May we have a calm, clear autumn.

    1. I didn’t have trouble, but I also pretty much stayed inside unless I had to go out for a doctor’s appointment or whatever. We minimized walking. My husband tried walking to the store one day when the smoke seemed mellow. He does have asthma and he had trouble breathing for about 2 days after x.x It was certainly a warning to be more careful. But once he recovered from that one small incident, we kept an eye on things and didn’t have any trouble. The flip side was, we didn’t get to enjoy much outdoors this summer ^^;;

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