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Not Seeing the Forest for the Smoke

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 is happy to be back in her hometown, but she has seen some changes. All photos by Sarah Beauchamp.

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.” 

Smoke-filled skies over Castlegar are creating more severe air quality issues.

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.”

Millennium Park isn’t as lively as it usually would be on a hot summer day due to smoky skies and poor air quality.

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.”