They say the best journey takes you home.
Jen Cartier grew up in Elkford, a tiny wild-at-heart town in British Columbia’s East Kootenay region in the Rocky Mountains, near the Alberta border. Two years ago, after twelve years in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Jen moved back to the area she grew up in with her now nine-year-old son Dax.
“I’m grateful for my upbringing because growing up in a smaller town gave me good core values. I’m a small-town person, so I’m happy to be back here,” says Jen.
The family now lives just outside Cranbrook, a three-hour drive from her hometown.
“I wanted to be closer to family and missed the mountains.”
Trained as a healthcare aid, Jen now runs a business selling candles and gifts through local retailers.
Growing up, Jen’s mom managed the general store, and her dad was a welder in Elkford. Her favourite things to do as a kid were hiking and playing golf.
Today, Jen gets outside constantly with her child.
“We’re so lucky we’re surrounded by nature. We take the dog for walks and spend as much time outside as possible,” says Jen. “It’s a good thing we live so close because pretty much every day in the summer, we were at Moyie Lake.”
Jen feels happy to raise Dax, who is into fishing, bike-riding and building projects, in a team dynamic.
“My child is very lucky. He’s got me, his stepdad, and my parents, and we’re all a very close family unit which is nice.”
When Breathing is a Chore
While she loves living here, Jen, like many, has felt the impacts of forest fires.
“There are a lot more wildfires than ever. It was rare if you heard about something like that in BC before. Now it’s everywhere. Every community is affected by a fire close to the perimeter or by surrounding communities covered in smoke.”
She remembers a couple of moments from this summer.
“The smoke was so heavy that people wore respirators just to go to Walmart. The sky was red, and it’s all just smoke, and the sun was not getting through, and it had an eerie glow to it.”
Seeing the fires this close to home was intense for Jen.
“I found it scary. I never had that fear growing up. Now I’ll look at the map and often will decide not to travel because we don’t want to go into a situation that could become dangerous, especially having a young child.”
Jen posted a smoky picture from Moyie Lake this summer on a Cranbrook community Facebook group.
“The smoke was so heavy I wondered if we had another fire in the area. I have asthma, so I notice it a lot. I know other people do as well.”
Jen’s asthma is a relatively new challenge in her life.
“I never used to have asthma. I never had an inhaler growing up. In the last three years, I started to struggle to breathe, especially around summertime. I contacted my doctor and tried to figure out what was going on. She said it was so bad that if I were a little older, I would be tested for COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). I went from not having any issues to being severe within three years.”
Jen’s doctor said that her asthma onset is due to air quality and heavy smoke. The connection between her asthma and wildfire smoke is clear to Jen, who notices that her asthma worsens when the smoke worsens.
Asthma has an emotional impact on her life too.
“It does get scary. For anybody, if you can’t breathe, it’s instant anxiety. It’s hard, especially at night when I’m lying down trying to sleep, and I’m wheezing and struggling.”
The Bigger Picture of Smoky Skies
Jen has considered why this is all happening in her community and beyond.
“It has to do with what we as humans are doing to the planet. I believe in global warming. Everything is heating up, and even small increases can have a big effect. Looking at the wildfire map for the last few years, it’s very in your face.”
Jen wonders if our governments could do more to prevent forest fires and warming temperatures and keep people safe from their effects.
“I believe our government has failed us with a lot of the stuff that’s happening environmentally.”
Jen looks at the town of Lytton, devastated by a wildfire in June 2021’s heat dome, as an example of what we are trying to avoid in other BC communities.
“We have communities burning down, so we need to allocate resources to prevent this from happening elsewhere. How can we keep our communities and the people in them safe?”
She believes that governments need to listen better to people and focus on what residents across the province are saying they need, especially regarding wildfire safety.
“We need a government that listens to the people and the issues. We need a government that’s more hands-on with the people who need help. So many people are scared to stand up and say: ‘you need to be accountable. You’re not listening to us. You’re not taking us seriously.’”
Breathing in Hope
Jen says it “would be amazing” to see people coming together to speak with a unified voice to the government about what our communities need.
She has noticed the people on the front lines helping in these emergencies, like firefighters and volunteers, are often the ones saying, “we need help to take climate action.”
Jen draws inspiration from witnessing her community come together to support each other from the effects of warming summers and forest fires.
“Where a fire is affecting a community, neighbours pull together resources, and neighbouring communities offer resources. People helping one another keeps my faith in humanity.”
Jen thinks being honest with her son about what’s happening is essential.
“He is the future generation, and he has to have a grip on what’s happening and how things are changing and what he can do to make a difference. He understands he needs to protect the land that we live on. We have to protect the beautiful place that we live in and our neighbours too.”