Living Here is a place to share local stories about people in rural communities and small towns who are helping to build healthy, safe, strong and sustainable communities.
Living Here is about our shared values and finding the common ground to move us forward. We care about the people and places that make small towns and rural living such a treasure. Like friends around the campfire or a family at a holiday meal, we share stories that let us learn about each other’s lives and help us help each other to enjoy and take care of our home
Heat dome: if only it was the name of a hard rock band from the 1980s. Unfortunately, the well broadcasted meteorological term describes the oppressive and record breaking heat wave that hung over western North America this past June. The term is still ringing in our ears.
For four days the atmospheric version of a casserole lid trapped a mass of lingering hot air in place, and with it came challenges — mainly for those of us living in homes with no air-conditioning— that ranged from staying comfortable to staying alive.
Residents of Castlegar are facing unprecedented threats from wildfire. The fire on the Bombi Summit is being fought as we speak. On the edge of the City of Castlegar, the Merry Creek Wildfire is largely contained but forced many people from their homes in the first days of July.
Lisa Horst, a Castlegar mom of two teenage daughters, considers herself lucky that she does not live right next to the fires.
“I know a whole bunch of people who got evacuated and were a lot closer to things,” Lisa says. “My youngest panicked last week when the fire was here; she was so worried about her friends and their animals and their houses. All the people that she didn’t know were in the same boat. It’s tough.”
Lisa is proud of residents’ response to the fires.
“I think our first responders did an amazing job with the fires, and the additional help from surrounding communities was without a doubt instrumental.”
Lisa was born and raised in Castlegar by her mom, who was long-term disabled and unable to work, and her dad, who after graduating from high school worked at Teck for 37 years. Lisa loves living in Castlegar.
“I love our area, truly and honestly. Growing up, I couldn’t wait to get away, and I did for six years, and then I came screaming back.”
She has noticed changes to the seasons since she was a child in the 1990s.
“They were solid seasons. It rained in the spring, and we would go full days with rain, not just little bits here and there. I don’t remember anything being scorching hot that we needed to stay inside. Definitely not smoky skies. Lots of snow in the winter; white Christmases were a normal thing. I don’t remember my family ever saying, ‘oh hey, sleep down in the basement if you need to. There was none of that. It was just life as normal.”
Lisa remembers trick or treating in her snowsuit, which doesn’t happen with her kids. The recent high temperatures concern her.
“If we ever get close to those 40 plus temperatures, it’s the end of August, not the first week of July. It’s absolutely related to climate change.”
Lisa is not alone in making the connection between heat, wildfires and climate change, although some people she speaks to don’t make this connection directly.
“Most people I talk to believe that climate change is definitely a factor. The topics usually stem around human-caused fires, though.”
Too Close for Comfort
Olga Hallberg, a nurse and resident of Castlegar, feared losing her family home in the Merry Creek wildfire. On July 1st, her family evacuated.
“It was a scary experience. But the worst is that it might happen again.”
In her seven years living in Castlegar, Olga has noticed changes.
“I noted drier summers with every year, less snow on the mountains around during summers, significantly more mosquitos around, more smoke from forest fires.”
As a nurse, Olga is concerned about the health and safety of our communities. As a parent like Lisa, she worries about her child having a safe future.
“There are fires everywhere. This is the closest one to Castlegar that I’ve known in my lifetime. I feel like it’s only a matter of time for us to be this untouched.”
The worst BC wildfire seasons have been in the last handful of years: 2017, 2018, and now 2021 is already busting through the records. One study on the connection between climate change and forest fires examined BC’s extreme wildfire season of 2017 when 1.2 million hectares burned. This study, out of the Pacific Climate Impacts Consortium at the University of Victoria, shows that climate change majorly increases the risk of warm conditions, high wildfire risk, and large areas burned compared to similar forest fires of the past.
Making Your Home Safer
Lisa worries about humans causing fires, like the one at Merry Creek, which likely started from human activity. According to the BC government, an average of 40% of wildfires in BC are person-caused.
Lisa has had many conversations within her family about fire prevention, including with her kids since they were small, such as how to be fire safe while enjoying wilderness areas. Her mom’s former partner has a fire suppression business and instilled in Lisa the value of fire safety. She believes that individuals need to do what they can do to make their homes and properties safer from fire.
“Do people know what they can do just in their yards for some preventive maintenance?” she asks.
Residents can make their homes safer in the case of wildfire by following the government of BC’s FireSafe program. These steps are: removing combustible materials from around the home and deck, keeping the grass to less than 10 cm, moving firewood and propane tanks away from the house, keeping trees pruned, cleaning and maintaining gutters and roofs, planting wildfire resistant vegetation, installing non-combustible screens on external vents (except dryer vents), and having an evacuation safety plan in place.
Making Your Community Safer
Brenden Mercer, forestry management liaison for First Nations’ Emergency Services Society, conducted assessments for Lytton-area First Nations and municipal authorities. This program provides funding to local governments and First Nations in BC to increase community resiliency by undertaking community-based fire safety planning and activities that reduce the community’s risk from wildfire. To date, 175 First Nations and local governments have received funding in the range of $50,000 to $150,000 per year.
Brenden said in a recent interview with CBC, “I was quite surprised to see how everything transpired there because I know how much work they’ve done in Lytton in the past. I can tell you they have been dealing with the highest hazards around their community.”
The sudden burning up of homes in Lytton sent shock waves around the world. It even made headlines in the British newspaper, the Guardian.
Lisa found the news about Lytton hard to accept.
“I feel incredibly sad for everyone affected by the Lytton fire. It’s the worst-case scenario in my mind. They had no time, where usually there are warnings.”
Many are calling for a new approach to fighting wildfire, says a CBC report from July 1st. How BC battles wildfires needs to adapt urgently to climate change’s growing impacts, several experts said. While the province has invested millions in fire prevention, some in the fire management sector say much more is needed, including how we think about fire suppression.
Wildfire suppression is a range of firefighting tactics used to suppress wildfires. Firefighting efforts in wildland areas require different techniques, equipment, and training from the more familiar urban firefighting involving structures in cities.
Lisa is worried about Castlegar’s future.
“I don’t think Castlegar is prepared for that kind of threat. Specifically, I doubt that residents have 72-hour bags or a plan on where they would go or what they would do. I don’t know how we can be more ready than that as far as logistics go.”
We can’t fireproof our towns and cities, but we can make them more resilient, says Kelly Johnston, technical adviser at FireSmart Canada, a national program that helps communities adapt to fire and reduce their wildfire risk.
We can make our communities safer by reading what fire experts call “fuel load” – combustible material such as vegetation. We can also build more fire-resistant houses and neighbourhoods, for example, planning and managing vegetation in a 30-metre zone between wilderness and town.
Another way we can help keep our towns safe is by keeping our old growth forests intact. A CBC article from May 30th outlines how old growth forests are essential to keeping us safe from forest fires. These forests have dense canopies, thick, tough bark, extensive root systems and space between them, which helps prevent the spread of forest fires.
Staying Positive Despite the Smoke
Lisa tries to stay hopeful. Like all parents, she wants her kids to have a safe and healthy future.
“It’s just a matter of doing our best to prevent climate change, whenever and however that’s possible.”
She is grateful on a daily basis.
“I feel very blessed that we live here with the rivers and lakes that we have. We could get hit by wildfire, but we’ve got water. On the whole, I love our area. We are pretty far removed and not dense, and that has served us very well.”
In the early 1890s, when Boise, Idaho was booming thanks to a gold rush, a local water company discovered something else east of the city: hot water bubbling up from beneath the Earth’s surface. The company built a wooden pipeline to transport the water to a nearby neighborhood, providing heat for several homes and businesses. This marked the nation’s first geothermal district heating system, which is still in operation today.
A century later in 1983, Boise developed another—much larger—geothermal district heating system for its downtown. Water from a naturally heated aquifer flows through a series of pipes underneath the city’s streets. The energy drawn from this water heats nearly 100 large buildings, including the city hall, banks, hotels, a convention center, and even the swimming pool at the local YMCA. The system serves a third of the downtown area, equivalent to more than 6 million square feet.
When Boise first installed its downtown heating system nearly four decades ago, “it was a pilot project,” Jon Gunnerson, the city’s geothermal coordinator, tells Next City. “Nobody knew how successful it was going to be.” Today, it is the most prominent and successful example of geothermal district heating in the country. “We’re heating the big buildings downtown, and we see a huge benefit of offsetting the energy that these large buildings would use,” Gunnerson says.
Geothermal energy harnesses the heat stored in rocks underneath the Earth’s surface. The Earth’s inner core is about 10000 degrees Fahrenheit—about as hot as the surface of the Sun—but even a few miles below the surface, temperatures can soar to well above 200 F. A fraction of this heat would be enough to satisfy the world’s energy needs. Although other renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar, have garnered more attention, geothermal energy has an important advantage over them. While solar and wind energy ebb and flow with the conditions, the Earth’s heat doesn’t fluctuate. “It’s always on, always available. It’s a 24/7 resource,” says Amanda Kolker, a geothermal geologist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Although geothermal energy can be used to generate electricity, Kolker says that it holds more promise for “direct use,” especially district heating. Geothermal electric plants require extremely high temperatures, but district heating systems like Boise’s need only what the geothermal industry calls “low temperature” heat, which is anything below about 300 F. “The distance to [these temperatures], it’s not far; we’re talking a couple of miles deep,” says Gunnerson.
Boise, for example, has dug three wells, ranging from 400 to 800 feet in depth, to capture water from the aquifer. The water, which has been heated by radioactive rock decay in foothills northeast of the city, is approximately 175 F. Once the water flows through the wells, it is piped to the downtown area, and the buildings connected to the heating system extract about 50 degrees F of heat from the water. Afterwards, the water is injected back into the aquifer, where it is reheated and can later be collected again.
“One thing that always surprises people who come and take a look at our system is the simplicity of it,” Gunnerson says. “Our geothermal program isn’t much more than a sophisticated irrigation system. We just have a small well, and we’ve got a small pump on it. It doesn’t take much energy. It pumps the water out of the ground and runs it through a network of pipes. And we have another pump that’s a little bit larger that injects this water back into the aquifer.”
Boise’s system is entirely renewable. It requires no fossil fuels, and because the water is constantly recycled in the aquifer, the system sustains itself. It is also relatively cheap to operate. Gunnerson says that his annual budget to heat all the buildings is about $750,000. Boise can also connect more buildings without much added cost.
“We’re limiting carbon emissions, we’re providing a sustainable energy, long-term,” Gunnerson says. “We’re also providing local energy, something that doesn’t have to be outsourced from overseas or a long-distance away.”
That’s not to say that it was simple for Boise to install its heating system in the 1980s. At the time, the downtown area had already been developed, so the city had to open up streets and lay down new pipelines to connect buildings to the new heating system. But Gunnerson says that the Boise community was “supportive” of the initiative.
Geothermal district heating could play an important role in the nation’s transition to clean energy. Heating and cooling for commercial and residential buildings accounts for approximately a quarter of all energy consumption in the United States. Much of this energy currently comes from fossil fuels like natural gas, fuel oil, kerosene, or propane.
Currently, there are only 23 geothermal district heating systems in America. These existing systems depend on “hydrothermal” sources, which are naturally occurring sources of hot water below the Earth’s surface that are easily accessible, as in Boise. But hydrothermal sources are mainly found in the western United States and near low-population areas. Boise is one of the few places where a hydrothermal source can be found close to a major city.
But experts believe that, with some technological innovation, low-temperature geothermal energy can be accessed almost anywhere in the country. “It’s possible in most places,” says Maria Richards, the Geothermal Lab Coordinator at Southern Methodist University. “It’s just a question of how deep [underneath the surface] do you need to go.”
In 2019, the Department of Energy released a study in which it found that there is enough geothermal energy at relatively shallow depths — less than two miles or so —around the country “to heat every U.S. home and commercial building for at least 8,500 years.” The report concluded that by 2050, there could potentially be 17,500 geothermal district heating systems in America, serving nearly 50 million households.
The government, universities, and industry are all racing to develop new technologies to access this energy. One such technology is called “enhanced geothermal systems” or EGS. According to Kolker, EGS “proposes to create a reservoir where there isn’t any.” Water is injected below the surface to create a reservoir in rocks that store heat. Once the water is heated by the rocks, it is brought back to the surface and the heat is extracted. The Department of Energy has a field laboratory in Utah where it is testing EGS for commercial use.
Another technology is called a “closed loop,” in which a fluid is injected into a pipe or wellbore that travels deep underneath the ground. Unlike with EGS, the fluid never comes into contact with hot rocks. Instead, as the water moves underneath the surface, it absorbs the heat from the rocks.
“I think the technologies are going to start proving themselves so that we can harness this geothermal energy anywhere,” says Gunnerson.
If these technologies can be successfully deployed, Boise may no longer be the lone example of urban geothermal district heating. Based on the confluence of heating demand and the availability of geothermal resources, the Department of Energy’s data suggests that district heating could be viable by 2050 in several major urban and suburban areas, including Chicago, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Dallas, New York, and Philadelphia. “I do think the big cities are where it needs to be targeted,” says Gunnerson. “You get more bang for your buck to heat a downtown, high density, high population area.”
Aside from the technology, the biggest obstacle to the expansion of geothermal heating is money. Kolker says that “geothermal can be a risky investment because you can drill some geothermal wells and you might be successful, you might not, but in the meantime you’ve sunk all these costs into the drilling of the well.” The upfront costs for drilling geothermal wells and installing heating systems are steep, and it can take time to recover those costs. Richards noted that production from oil & gas wells can pay off their upfront costs in a few years, “whereas in geothermal, you drill a well and you amortize that cost over 10 to 20 years.”
Government assistance could go a long way in allowing the geothermal industry to reach the ambitious goals set by the Department of Energy. The experts I spoke with mentioned several programs that might be helpful, including tax incentives for drilling, risk insurance, research & development, or even a carbon tax to even the playing field against cheap fossil-fuel alternatives like natural gas.
“Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of government horsepower to incentivize this,” says Gunnerson. “The political side needs to step up and needs to encourage use of this. That would be a huge game changer.”
This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
“I was always obsessed with construction,” 36-year-old Adam Corneil says. “As young as I can remember I was helping my dad and my brother build things around the house.”
When he was 16 years old, Adam fixed up and sold a home with his father in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario. A few years later, when he was back home from university for the summer, he joined a building crew and helped build the home his mother still lives in today. And in his early twenties, Adam honed his craft in Calgary, Alberta where he worked as a project manager overseeing construction contracts and managing 50 employees.
As the years went on, Adam’s passion for building grew. But he started to feel uncomfortable with the amount of waste he was seeing. The waste was coming with the demolition side of his industry. And he wondered if the care and thought that goes into building a home could be put into tearing one down.
Kathy Miller of Trail, British Columbia, learned she had asthma four months ago, at age 53. If being diagnosed with a lung condition during a respiratory pandemic wasn’t enough, Kathy has struggled with other chronic health issues, including chronic pancreatitis, since she was only three years old.
Getting an asthma diagnosis was a winding road. Just over two years ago, Kathy experienced a terrible bout of acute pancreatitis that caused a heart problem. She has been off work ever since.
“I was having trouble breathing ever since then, and my doctor chalked it up to the heart problem associated with my chronic pancreatitis. And then six months ago, I said, I’m having some trouble here, and she said, well, let’s get you another X-ray. We did that. She said, Yeah, it looks like your lungs have changed, so let’s get you into the breathing clinic,” Kathy says.
Jim Reimer is the Pastor of the Kootenay Christian Fellowship in Nelson, British Columbia, and he opened Our Daily Bread in 2002. I was a volunteer at Our Daily Bread in 2018 and 2019. I went back in 2021 to speak to Jim and a few of the volunteers to find out more about their motivation for helping people in our community.
Jim opened Our Daily Bread, a subsidized hot meal program, 19 years ago because he saw an under-served population who needed more social support than Nelson offered. He works closely with disadvantaged populations including the working poor, people with mental health problems, homeless people, people with disabilities, substance use problems, as well as low-income seniors.
When I volunteered, I witnessed Jim’s kindness and his interest in the people who visit Our Daily Bread. At lunchtime, Jim joined in the lineup of hungry people forming an arc through the spacious dining room. He made a point of speaking with new people and regular visitors. I was struck by how much work and organization it took to serve breakfast and lunch to 60 or 70 people.
“We appreciate that there has to be industry, and we happen to live in a valley that is encouraging more. We just want to make sure that somebody is watching. Somebody has to be doing it, and it happens to be us.”
These are words from Pam Vollrath, a retired school teacher who has called Kitimat, British Columbia home since 1979. The ‘us’ she is referring to is the Kitimat Terrace Clean Air Coalition (KTCAC), a society that formed in 2016, mostly by teachers like her, in response to health concerns involving air quality.
“We were very worried about the cumulative effects of all of the industry that is here and more to come,” Pam says. “There are statistics showing that people with respiratory illnesses are definitely above average in this town. And we’ve had a lot of people in their aging years die of certain cancers.”
“The smiling faces and high fives when competitors of all abilities cross the finish line is truly exhilarating,” remarks Janis Neufeld, shown above in the helicopter. She’s talking about running, cycling and multi-sport races and she’s seen a lot of finish lines.
Janis is the founder of the Kootenay Adaptive Sport Association (KASA), and lived in the Kootenays in Trail, Kaslo and Nakusp, for many years until recently moving north to Prince George.
Janis has a long history of impressive sport credentials, yet she says it was when she was 41 and attended a conference in Vancouver that she first heard, out loud, what she had always personally known at a cellular level. As Janis explained, for the first time in history, a child born today has a shorter life expectancy than their parents, mostly because of declining mobility and exercise.
For Sean Stepchuk, the North Saskatchewan River valley outside of his home in Edmonton, Alberta, is one of his favourite places to explore. The river valley, which is North America’s largest urban parkland, offers stunning views, beautiful paths for walking and biking, and even an edible forest full of wild asparagus, onions, mushrooms, and berries for those who know where to look.
One thing Sean doesn’t like to see while in nature: litter from single use plastics.
Single use plastics like coffee cups, takeout containers, and plastic straws and utensils, often used for just for a few minutes before being thrown into the trash, create a lot of waste. These plastics seem to be everywhere.