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A Lifetime in Castlegar

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.” 

Holly with daughters Leah and Paige.

Holly believes that residents in our area want to make a difference in their communities. 

“In this area, we’re a lot better off because we are very conscientious. I think the majority of people do love to spend time outdoors, garden. We grew up with gardens every year, growing our food. My daughter has a vegetable farm plus bees as well, Heritage Acres Homestead in Pass Creek. They’re just starting slowly. She’s got seven beehives now—just a small little farm. You need to know where your food comes from and how it gets there.” 

Holly is concerned about this time of drought, fire and smoke.

“I’ve been inside today. I went outside yesterday, and the smoke was very, very strong. I don’t think I remember temperatures this hot ever growing up.” 

She worries about her grandchild. 

“My youngest granddaughter has lung issues, so I worry about her. She loves to be outside. I worry that she’s out there and breathing in this smoke. It’s just the quality of the air is just not what it was when we were growing up.”

She remembers fondly the summers growing up.

“The summers were nice. It was hot but not to the point that it is right now. I remember sitting at the beach, and you could be out there all day, and you might get pink, but you would be fine the next day. Not like now, where you’re out there for half an hour and definitely would get a severe burn. You couldn’t sit outside now, not like we used to do before. We’d be out in the garden. We would be out weeding, spending a couple of hours in the garden, and you’d be okay. I don’t remember using sunscreen at all. It’s very different.”

Holly shares her memories of the winters.

“I remember winters with so much snow that you couldn’t even see over the banks as they were as high as the roof. When we had snow, we had a lot of snow. It was cold where even the rivers were frozen. I remember skating on the road.”

Honeycomb from Heritage Acres, her daughter Leah and son-in-law Mark’s farm.

She connects the changes in temperature to more significant factors. 

“The summers started in June but were definitely not as hot. It’s very different. I can’t believe how hot it’s been getting through the summers and longer and longer. I think it’s climate change.”

She was not immediately at risk from the wildfires that threatened her town recently; however, the fear is real.

“We have trees all around as well, and it’s very, very dry. There is still that worry that if there is a spark, it’s so dry out there that it won’t take long to move through the neighbourhood.”

In the NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration annual report on global temperatures and climate conditions, 2019 was the second warmest year on record. The past decade was the warmest ever.

Snowbanks as Tall as Roofs

Kathy grew up in Castlegar in the 1950s. She lives in a house that has been in her family for three generations. Her dad worked at Teck. 

“There is a lot of history in this area for me,” she says. 

She remembers things being different when she was a kid.

“The first wet snow would fall on Halloween night. I can remember only one Halloween that it didn’t. In the winter, I remember getting into trouble for going up the snowbank and climbing onto the house’s roof. There is no way that I could do that right now. The snow banks don’t get that high. It’s a completely different pattern of snow.”

A family tries to stay cool at the beach at Millennium Park in Castlegar amidst the smoke of forest fires.

Kathy sees that things are changing quickly.

“I remember it being 40-41 celsius in July and August. That was no big deal. But, it was later July, August, never this early in the year. This year it went to 45 degrees. It’s just slightly hotter, but it’s much earlier. We never had smoke like this that I can remember. Other than that one time when Mount Sentinel was on fire,” she says.

Kathy remembers the startling wildfire of 1967 that devoured 2,000 hectares of mountainside near Castlegar. They nicknamed the fire “Sent” because of the mountain and because it happened in Canada’s centennial year. Kathy remembers this fire so clearly because no other wildfires stand out in her memory until the past few years. 

She reflects on the bigger picture. 

“We’ve taken over so much of the land, so of course, the fires creep up on where homes are. Whereas back then, there were no homes there, so they would let it burn, and that’s the way mother nature takes care of it for us. The more that we invade the forest, the worse we’re making it for ourselves. It is all interrelated.”

The air tankers are a familiar sight at the West Kootenay Regional Airport in Castlegar.

Kathy doesn’t know where we go from here. 

“We’re not allowing mother nature to take its course with these things. We put a monkey wrench in it and then try to backtrack and say, “well, what did we do wrong?'”

Holly and Kathy have experienced it, and science backs them up: heatwaves are becoming longer and more intense. The United Nations body for accessing the science related to climate change states: 

“It is virtually certain that there will be more frequent hot and fewer cold temperature extremes over most land areas on daily and seasonal timescales” and that “it is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and longer duration.”

Look No Further than the Forest

Holly would like governments to take more action on climate change.

“I think they could do a lot more. They talk a lot, but not a lot gets done,” she says.

One option is for towns and cities to plant more trees and vegetation to capture heat in town areas. 

Nature-based or natural climate solutions are actions taken to balance climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions or adapting to climate change. Drought-tolerant trees absorb and store greenhouse gases, regulate water levels, protect shorelines from storms and erosion, and cool cities. Forests stop floodwaters from reaching homes, provide shade and cooler air in the hot months, and act as snow fences to protect fields and roads in the winter. Forests also provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, many of whom live in our rural Kootenay communities.

So how much can trees cool a city?

Montreal biology professor Carly Ziter found that temperatures can be up to 5 degrees Celsius cooler during the day and 2 degrees cooler at night in parts of the city with significant tree coverage. The biggest differences occurred where the tree canopy was dense.

“Trees not only provide shade, but they are also transpiring or giving off water vapour, so they act like little air conditioners,” Ziter said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette

Researchers are only beginning to understand the science and practicalities of staying cool with urban forests. How this strategy could work in rural towns like Castlegar is yet to be explored. But the Canadian Urban Forest Strategy notes that as our cities are growing, the line between what is urban and what is rural is becoming less clear. It is never too soon for communities of any size to take action. Community tree planning and planting grants and support are available through Tree Canada, an organization that has worked with 700 communities and says that a community of any size can become active in planting trees.

Keeping Towns Cool for the Next Generation

The University of British Columbia’s Citizen’s Toolkit on Climate Change and Urban Forestry provides practical guidance on how to help keep your neighbourhood cool. It advises on planting low-maintenance native species of shrubs and trees, retrofitting your home with energy-saving features, and reducing your risk of the effects of climate change. 

Dr. Stephen Sheppard, the principal investigator, says homeowners can increase the cooling potential of their homes without resorting to air conditioners. Solutions include:

  • Better insulation
  • Energy-efficient windows
  • Curtains
  • White coloured roofs to reflect the sun
  • Green roofs and canopies to shade buildings and walls 
Holly still sees gardening and taking care of family and community as priorities.

Holly, grandmother, baker and gardener, is hopeful about our area being resilient to changes we face as a global family. 

“Hopefully, in this area, we continue to be that conscientious so that we can continue those traditions, growing our own food, plus bees and any other outdoor farming,” she says. 

She is also optimistic about her grandchildren’s future. 

“I think this is the best area to live in. We’ve got skiing in the winter. We’ve got lakes all around us. Lots of forests and hiking trails are beneficial to our air, to our community. I think this is the best place to live, that’s why we’re still here. A lot of people here want to keep things green and healthy for the next generation.”

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