Life in a Wildfire Evacuation Alert Zone (Part 2)

Life in a Wildfire Evacuation Alert Zone (Part 2)

Fire is a natural part of a forest’s life cycle. I’ve mentioned this before. If you live anywhere near a forested area – and certainly in Canada where forest makes up a large portion of the landscape between cities – you’ll be familiar with wildfires. They’re a threat every summer. And the level of risk changes based on how much rain has fallen, how much moisture the ground has absorbed, and a dozen other criteria.

In 2023, it is estimated that Canadian wildfires will account for 25% of the global carbon emissions total. As of August 3rd, Canadian fires had released 290 million tonnes of carbon. Double the previous annual record set in 2014 (which was 138 million tonnes, in case you’re curious).

On July 18th 2023, CBC reported that more than 14,100 square kilometers of land had burned in during British Columbia’s fire season. Surpassing the previous record of 13,500 square miles in 2018. With 2 months left in what is usually considered wildfire season. The same article stated that 390 fires were currently burning, with just over 20 considered wildfires of note.

At the time of this writing, there are at least 12 wildfires of note in British Columbia. One still rages out of control on the opposite side of the lake beside which our town is located.

According to weather statistics, May and June were uncharacteristically dry in our province this year. And due to changes in weather patterns, wildfire season also now lasts, on average, 2 weeks longer.

Roughly half the wildfires in Canada are started by lightning. And lightning-sparked fires account for roughly 85% of the land burned by wildfires. Due to climate change, lightning-caused fires are happening with greater frequency. We’ve certainly had more thunderstorms this year than any previous year.

A Matter of Time

Summer of 2023 started with a great deal of trepidation for me. We spent most of 2022’s summer cloaked in smoke, unable to enjoy the usual sights and luxuries of summer in our area. And since wildfire is always a reality of every summer, it was impossible to tell how much smoke would visit us this time around.

But the worst wildfires did not assault the west coast in the early portion of 2023’s wildfire season. Instead the east coast was blanketed in smoke and flame, with some of the smoke from Canadian fires carrying as far south as New York. With Toronto and Ottawa blanketed in terrible air conditions, the world was abuzz with details about the east coast wildfires.

It might seem crass, but I spent a lot of those weeks saying silent prayers of thanks that our skies remained relatively smoke-free.

But the west coast’s fire season did not arrive quietly nor pass tamely. By mid-July and early August, it was our turn to watch the skies darken.

My husband and I have lived in wildfire country on and off throughout our adult lives. But we have never actually found ourselves in an evacuation alert zone before.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, on August 17th, late in the evening, burning embers from a wildfire on the other side of our town’s lake crossed the water on 60 kilometer per hour winds and sparked 2 fresh fires. In the weeks to follow we heard rumors of burning twigs and a rain of burning pine cones.

Many trees burn from the inside out. And those with a great deal of sap sometimes explode when they get hot enough.

However the fires traveled across the lake, the space they traversed was by no means small.

Living Inside a Wildfire Alert Zone

We were lucky. Though we spent pretty much the entire span of the fire under evacuation alert, we were never told to leave. That allowed us to return to our house whenever we wished. Many other people we know did not have that luxury.

Though we did spend 2 nights at a friend’s house after the initial spark as we feared a rude awakening to danger in the middle of the night.

When weather conditions became more favorable to firefighting, we returned to our house to wait out the extent of the alert, aware that it might simply be the reality of our life for a little while. We agreed to buy only a week’s worth of food in case we needed to abandon our house at some point, and we did our best not to spend all day every day thinking about the fire burning just over the nearby mountains.

As we checked in with friends and colleagues affected by the fire, we heard stories that made our skin crawl. At least one of our friends had footage of firefighters in their back yard via backdoor camera footage. His house was safe, but only because the firefighters were present to prevent the flames from spreading.

In fact, the fire chief warned that in some places people would return to find their yards charred right up to their patio furniture. Stories emerged about the RCMP pausing to fight off a fire with garden hoses left attached to evacuated houses.

With every account, I spoke another silent prayer of thanks that the fire never reached our neighborhood. Especially after my husband admitted he had mentally and emotionally prepared never to set foot in our house again when we left.

A Daily Ritual

Every morning at 10AM, the local fire chiefs and emergency personnel held a press conference to brief the public on the state of the fire. There were 3 fires. Ours was always the second to be addressed.

It became a daily ritual to settle in with our coffee and listen to the day’s developments. Every time they called it a good day for firefighting, our spirits would lift and our tension would ease. Our bags remained packed. Some objects were regularly removed from their depths only to be returned again at the end of the day. Our toiletry bags remained ready to be repacked and returned to the main suitcase.

But as the days passed and the smoke cleared, as people evacuated from their houses were allowed to return to the safety and security of their communities, the alert became more of a formality. A line on a map. A reminder that the fire wasn’t out. But the danger became distant. The urgency faded. And life moved on.

It would be a lie to say I occupied my house with absolute certainty those first few days back. But it did become a little easier to sleep each night – especially after several of the evacuation orders near us were downgraded to alerts.

When the town announced resumption of service to our area, we finally restocked our pantry and breathed soft sighs of relief.

Fire will continue to be a threat to our area. Even now, the fire on the west side of the lake is a long way from contained. The government has already started looking to the future, talking about controlled burns, hoping to keep fire out of populated areas.

I’m already worried about next summer, wondering if the spring rains will return and how close the fire will travel toward my door step. The fear will never entirely go away and is certainly a lot stronger than it used to be. But for now, I’m grateful to have the worst of the threat behind us – at least for a little while.

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