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
Top photo: Members of the Canadian Armed Forces teamed up with BC firefighters this summer to fight fires such as the White Rock Lake Fire. (Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service.)
For most of Matthew Heneghan’s life, he has been the one who shows up during a crisis.
During his adolescent years, he stood by his single mother as she battled one cancer diagnosis after another. Right out of high school, Matthew joined the Canadian Armed Forces and served for six years. More recently he worked as a paramedic in Edmonton and Toronto responding to 911 calls.
But when an approaching wildfire forced Matthew to evacuate his home this summer, the tables were turned.
You can take the girl from the ranch but not the ranch out of the girl, says Linda of Courtney on grad day. All photos courtesy of Scott & Linda Heuston.
A Commitment for Life
Scott Heuston’s family has farmed in Balfour, British Columbia, since his grandfather bought the property in 1925. Scott is now in his seventies and still farming.
“I’ve been doing it for close to 60 years now. I’m running out of gas, but I still enjoy the cattle and enjoy doing things. It’s a matter of someone else doing the heavy work, and there isn’t anyone around to make that commitment.”
Scott always knew he wanted to be a farmer.
“When I was 8, 9 years old, my only goal in life was to farm. To raise cattle, grow grain, grow crops, grow anything.”
We’ve all had a lot to deal with this summer. Heat domes, fires, smoke, Covid – there’s been no shortage of bad news stories. Yet we’ve also found good stories to share. We asked our reporters at Living Here and staff at EcoSociety to share pictures that showed how they coped this summer. What they did to try to do the normal things we do in summer when we’re not worried about the air we breathe or whether a fire is going to send us fleeing from our community. Here’s what they shared.
Reporter Sarah Lord writes: We are making the best of a smoky situation. Floating on Slocan Lake with friends, while my dog, Little, tries to find someone to throw her ball.
A friend took this photo during the very first smoky days of summer, and at that point, none of us could have imagined how bad the wildfire situation would get. That day, we were carefree. Since then, we have spent a lot of time stuck inside, not on the lake, avoiding the smoke and extreme heat. And also feeling sad about the fires. I’m happy we got out when we did during the first part of summer.
My friends and I are going out this weekend to float again, this time on the Slocan River. Smoke or clear sky; we still need to have moments of joy and connection.
As the Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon swept toward him last week, Pete Caligiuri of The Nature Conservancy hustled to lay out water pipes and start the sprinklers to wet down the area surrounding a remote research station. The approaching wildfire had raged so fiercely that it had begun generating its own weather. Clouds of hot smoke formed towering thunderheads, which cast lighting down among the dry trees and urged the flames forward with gusts.
The Nature Conservancy had been preparing for this moment for decades. The Jim Castles research station sits at the north end of the Sycan Marsh reserve: 30,000 acres of mixed wetland and dry pine forest in the Klamath Basin, which the nonprofit acquired in the 1980’s. The conservation group worked with the Klamath Tribes that call this area home to restore the forested areas to the landscape that existed before Americans took over the land and began putting out fires. They cut down small trees, leaving fire-adapted specimens like thick-barked ponderosa pines, and they began setting fires, allowing them to consume decades of needles and branches on the forest floor.
You might have heard about a funny, cute, excitable herd of goats feasting in Idlewild Park in Cranbrook, British Columbia. The goats of Vahana Nature Rehabilitation were at the park in May eating up a patch of Canada thistle. Canada thistle is an invasive plant that is considered harmful. Invasive species are plants and animals not native to BC.
Based in nearby Kimberley, Vahana provides vegetation control throughout southeastern BC using a herd of specialized goats and a unique method called target grazing. Target grazing is a growing industry in Canada in the ongoing battle against invasive plants, says Cailey Chase, who operates Vahana.
“The goats will eat everything down, and we’ll bring them back in, and they’ll eat everything down again,” she says.
Whether she was born with it or it was modelled by her parents, working hard is in Laura’s Livingstone’s blood.
After high school Laura worked with a grading crew that built logging roads all over B.C.’s interior. She developed a passion for 4x4ing and cars when she worked for a local auto parts store. And for the past twelve years she has been working for Teck — one of the world’s largest zinc and lead smelters — in Trail, British Columbia. First as a janitor, and today as an operator in the sulfide leaching plant.
“My family isn’t surprised that I ended up with an industrial career. I’ve always had untraditional jobs,” Laura says. “I could never see myself working behind a desk or somewhere I’d have to worry about what to wear each day.”
Holly Strilaeff has lived within a stone’s throw of Castlegar, British Columbia, for all of her 63 years. Her dad owned a stucco and plaster business and later ran one of the first vegetarian restaurants in the area, Doukhobor Village Foods, near the Doukhobor Centre with Holly’s mother. Holly helped with the family business that ran for 18 years.
Holly grew up in a culture where taking care of where they live is highly valued. Her parents had fruit trees, milk cows, chickens for eggs, and a huge garden to feed the family.
“We grew up making our butter, our cottage cheese. It was a good starting point for me, and now my granddaughters do the same thing. Every time they come to visit, this is what we do. We pass on the traditions.”
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.