About 40 years ago, the story goes, several Tibetan Buddhist monks declared that they had discovered the centre of the universe in the mountains north of Kamloops, British Columbia. The monks, who visited several times, were reportedly able to identify the spot—a grassy knoll near Deadman River—by its distinctive volcanic topography and through a series of numinous tests, one of which was the ability to start a fire in the area without an ignition source.
In 2016, Marshall Potts bought 160 acres of land about an hour’s drive from the centre of the universe. Like the monks, Potts—a 54-year-old country-rock musician and self-described “spiritual guy” who’d previously lived in the Lower Mainland—found the landscape magical. There were soul-stirring groves of Douglas fir, verdant grasslands, and unspoiled lakes and creeks. Mule deer, black bears and bighorn sheep roamed the woods and cliffsides. Potts and his partner, Jo-Anne Beharrell, an accountant who moonlights as Potts’s manager, wanted to turn the property into an off-grid hobby farm and live self-sufficiently. They cut and milled trees to build a house, grew their own vegetables, and acquired chickens and a small herd of cattle. They set about installing solar panels. It was undeniably remote—Kamloops was a two-hour round-trip drive along a narrow, sometimes treacherous, gravel road—but that was part of the attraction. “You learn to drink your coffee black,” Beharrell told me, “because there’s no corner store to run to when you’re out of cream.” They christened the place Seven Sparks Ranch, named in part for a nearby body of water, Sparks Lake.
It can get hot on the ranch in summer, but the summer of 2021 in the south-central part of B.C.’s Interior was mind-bendingly hot. On June 28, the temperature in Kamloops hit a high of 44 degrees Celsius, almost 20 degrees above average. Potts and Beharrell went down to Criss Creek, a half-hour’s drive from their house, to cool off and have a picnic lunch. When they returned home a couple of hours later, they noticed a plume of smoke above the trees to the south of their property. The smoke was pale grey, the plume still small. They raced over to a neighbour’s place a few kilometres away and saw a grass fire spreading. It was so hot, and the wind so fierce, that the fire was already moving very quickly. “We just heard a roar, and then the flames started coming toward us,” Potts said. Back home, Beharrell called 911, who transferred her to the BC Wildfire Service, the province’s wildfire-fighting corps. “We thought the fire was significant,” Potts said, “but we figured they’d be able to put it out.”
They didn’t. Or at least not right away. An hour passed, then another. From their home, Potts and Beharrell watched with mounting anxiety as the plume became a column and its smoke got blacker, indicating that it was burning more vegetation. After four or five hours, BC Wildfire flew planes overhead, observing the fire. By the next morning, as firefighters arrived by helicopter and began to strategize, the blaze had already spread. Potts and Beharrell had lost power by then, and started moving farm equipment onto the grass away from trees. The fire crews told the couple that by the time the fire hit a nearby ridge, they’d have to evacuate. It hit the ridge later that day. “It was a monster,” Potts said. They grabbed what they could: a couple of Potts’s favourite guitars and an amp, a laptop and a hard drive, some photos, their two dogs (one of whom was pregnant). They took a forest service road out of the back of their property and drove to Kamloops.
Even in town they couldn’t get away from fire. They ended up in a motel near the neighbourhood of Juniper Ridge. Before the night was over, a different, smaller wildfire broke out just behind the motel. After about a week, they went to stay at Potts’s brother’s place at Pinantan Lake, 20 kilometres away. Soon after they arrived, another fire was menacing that community, and it was eventually put on evacuation alert, too.
The Sparks Lake fire was the largest of the season, a conflagration that raged for more than two months, devouring 95,980 hectares of land and trees and destroying or damaging more than 35 buildings. Hundreds of people were forced to evacuate; countless animals and birds were killed or displaced. The fire cut a broad swath through the region, from the Deadman River valley, across the territory of the Skeetchestn Indian Band, and up north into Bonaparte Provincial Park.
There were few places anybody could go in B.C. that summer. In terms of area burned, 2021 was the third-worst fire season on record in the province’s history. In terms of its broad impact, however, the 2021 fire season was the most devastating B.C. had ever experienced. Between April 1, 2021, and March 28, 2022, there were 1,642 wildfires, 67 of which were bad enough to be classified as “wildfires of note” by BC Wildfire. Then there was the disorienting drought and blistering heat waves of late June and early July that made the fires so much worse—the “heat dome” that settled over the Pacific Northwest and immediately transformed a normally temperate climate into one better approximating Death Valley.
On June 29, Lytton broke the record for the all-time highest temperature in Canada—49.5 degrees Celsius—and the next day, the entire village was wiped out by yet another wildfire. Two people died in the Lytton fire, and the heat would kill more than 600 across the province. Just a few months later, with the charred terrain stripped of water-absorbing vegetation, extreme rainfall in mid-November flooded homes, swept away highways and forced the evacuations of thousands more across the southern part of the province. Like so many people, Marshall Potts and Jo-Anne Beharrell were cut off from their family in the Lower Mainland. They were able to get back into their house by Christmas—firefighters had ultimately prevented its destruction—but they spent the holiday alone.
There had been disastrous fire seasons before. Potts and Beharrell had previously been evacuated, during 2017’s Elephant Hill fire, another monster that destroyed a good chunk of the area’s forest. Experts argued that such megafires were a harbinger of climate change, and a sign of environmental catastrophe to come. But the cascade of natural disasters in 2021 made it clearer than ever that a climate emergency is irrevocably upon us. Mike Flannigan, the British Columbia research chair in predictive services, emergency management and fire science at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops—he calls himself a “fire guy” on Twitter—told me that he hadn’t expected climate events like those in B.C. last summer to occur for another 15 or 20 years, and yet there they were. Last year, it seemed, was a terrible tipping point. “You think things are crazy now,” Flannigan said, “but it’s only going to get crazier.”
And if Flannigan wasn’t prepared for what had already happened, how will the rest of us fare? Residents of B.C., at least outside densely populated Vancouver and its expanding suburbs, have always proudly accepted the risks that come with living in or near the bush. That was part of the deal—like living with the chance of hurricanes in Florida or earthquakes (and wildfires, for that matter) in California. Now things are different. What was once incomprehensible today feels inevitable. It’s one thing to understand risk as an occasional and distant possibility. Now your brain has to accept that life, going forward, will be even more frequently marred by displacement, loss and death. You have to completely recalibrate your ideas of safety and vulnerability. Enormous changes are going to come at the last minute. And simple, age-old questions about the weather—“Hot enough for you?” “Which way is the wind blowing?”—are going to be freighted with existential dread.
In early May, I travelled from Abbotsford up through the Kamloops Fire Centre to see the ravages of last year’s fires, what the recovery looked like and how people were coping.
I spent a fair bit of time in the region as a kid, learning to tack and ride horses. It is achingly beautiful, physically imposing. In the space of an hour, you can travel through snow-capped mountains and desert mesas, coniferous trees giving way to sagebrush. There are long stretches of empty highway, interrupted by somewhat drab, ramshackle villages and hamlets, as if the architects of these developments saw no point in competing with the natural beauty surrounding them. The people who live here are, generally speaking, people who make their living from the land—farmers, miners, ranchers, loggers—and who also spend most of their free time out in it, fishing and hunting, swimming and skiing. For someone like me, who now spends about 99 per cent of his life in cities, the membrane between the human and natural world in this country feels unusually thin.
“You think things are crazy now,” one fire expert said, “but it’s only going to get crazier”
As I drove into the mountains on the Coquihalla Highway, I passed dozens of work crews cleaning up debris from last year’s mudslides—immense tangles of rock, branches and other vegetation—and repairing chunks of road that had been melted by the heat or ripped apart by floodwater. Each site was marked by long strings of orange safety flags that fluttered overhead, lending an almost festive air to what still seemed like a disaster zone. The first dead trees I saw were near the Coldwater Indian Band Reserve, south of Merritt. Suddenly, the landscape was drained of colour. All I could see were grim groves of black pines and firs, stripped of needle and cone. Over the next few days, I’d encounter many other such stands, and each time was a fresh shock, like discovering new tumours in a body that was supposed to be cancer-free.
Then there was the other destruction, still also visible, of human settlement—
of family homes, of small businesses, of carefully tended gardens and trusty vehicles. Lytton, whose cleanup and recovery has been plagued by inexplicable bureaucratic delay, was still, almost a year later, closed to the public. An opaque barrier had been placed up on the highway to deter gawkers, but a narrow gap below that barrier still permitted a glimpse of the devastation: block after block of levelled structures, dunes of ash, hollowed-out lives.
All over the world, the recipe for wildfire is the same, requiring just three basic ingredients: vegetation (what forestry and fire people call fuel), ignition and conducive weather—hot, dry, windy. In B.C., particularly in the last five years, all of these elements have taken on extreme dimensions. The first ingredient is the most easily—but also the most contentiously—addressed. Long before settlers arrived in the province, Indigenous peoples kept wildfire in check through prescribed and cultural burns; that is, intentionally setting highly controlled fires at low-risk times of year. The practice was designed to thin out forests, render the bark of old-growth trees more fire-resistant, remove dead grass and encourage the growth of beneficial plants. These burns would occur every five to 25 years and essentially rebalance the ecosystem.
Such maintenance was more or less outlawed in the late 19th century by colonial governments, which viewed any kind of fire as destructive to valuable timber. Several decades of commercial logging made the landscape even more vulnerable to fire, with diverse woodlands largely replaced by tree farms consisting almost entirely of conifers. The region’s pine, notoriously, has been ravaged by the mountain pine beetle, with dead and weakened trees becoming highly flammable fuel on the forest floor. Other sloppy and short-sighted practices—not removing scrap wood left behind by loggers, as well as a policy of reflexively, blindly stamping out all wildfire—turned the province’s forests, over time, into tinderboxes. “We’re up against a major issue, which is a hundred years of fuel loading,” says Kira Hoffman, a Smithers-based fire ecologist who is in training to be a burn boss (someone who plans and implements prescribed burns). “We’ve become really, really good at putting out fires.” While prescribed fires are again a part of fire management, both by Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups, the province needs to clean up all the fuel from forest floors at a much larger scale before those burns can be effective.
Human-caused wildfires—ignited by stray cigarette butts, downed power lines or arson—account for about half of all fires, on average, across the entire country. Thanks to fire prevention education and vigilance, the number of human-caused fires has actually been declining. In B.C.’s 2021 fire season, just 35 per cent of fires were attributed to people. At the same time, thanks to a warming planet, lightning strikes, which account for the other half of Canada’s fires, have increased exponentially. During last summer’s heat wave, more than 710,000 lightning strikes were recorded in B.C. and western Alberta, up from a five-year average of 8,300 during the same time of year. The wildfires themselves, now so notoriously aggressive and unpredictable, can create their own firestorms and yet more lightning—a terrifying feedback loop.
Since the early 1970s, the amount of forest that burns every year in Canada has doubled to about 2.5 million hectares—about half the size of Nova Scotia. In the 1980s, as more people moved into or near wilderness, and built homes and businesses there, so-called interface fires became more common. (“Wildland-urban interface” is the firefighting term used to describe the transition zone where human development brushes up against the natural world.) In B.C., in 2003, the Okanagan suffered the largest interface wildfire event in the province’s history. More than 25,000 hectares burned, 238 homes were destroyed or damaged, and more than 33,000 people evacuated from Kelowna and the community of Naramata. Then came the horrific fire seasons of 2017 and 2018. Over the course of the summer of 2017, more than 65,000 people were evacuated province-wide, and 1.2 million hectares burned. In 2018, there were over 2,000 fires and 1.35 million hectares burned. “Growth into the wildland-urban interface increases every year,” Ian Meier, executive director of the BC Wildfire Service, told me. “So the challenge increases every year.” There are about 1.1 million high-risk hectares in B.C.
In 2017, the worst fire season to date, the province spent $649 million fighting fires; it spent another $565 million last year. The insurance payouts from just two of 2021’s megafires—Lytton Creek and White Rock Lake—came to $179 million. If wildfires have been made worse by climate change, climate change has also been made worse by wildfires: Elephant Hill, for example, spewed 38 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And while it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly how much harm the smoke from last summer’s wildfires caused, a report in the Lancet published in September of 2021 estimated that short-term exposure to wildfire smoke causes 440 deaths in Canada every year.
On an average summer’s day, most fire management agencies can put out wildfires without too much trouble or damage. That can completely change when the heat is extreme—days, even weeks, of extreme weather are now, of course, increasingly common. The heat dome, once considered a thousand-year event, is now expected to recur as frequently as every 25 years. By 2050, average temperatures are expected to be higher, with daytime highs in Vancouver as much as 3.7 degrees Celsius warmer than they are now. Under such conditions, another diabolical cycle is set in motion—
a warming atmosphere sucks more moisture from vegetation, essentially baking that fuel, resulting in overwhelmingly intense fires that are difficult, if not impossible, to extinguish. Those fires are the biggest threat. “It’s just a few really large fires that are responsible for most of our problems,” Mike Flannigan told me. “Three per cent of the fires burn 97 per cent of the area burned. And these often happen on a few critical days—the extremes of the extremes.”
As I made my way across the fire centre, I occasionally smelled smoke. I saw it, too, from time to time, and once, on a ridge just outside of Kamloops, the flicker of flames. Someone’s burn pile? A pulp mill? It was nothing threatening, ultimately, but it gave me just the smallest hint of the fear that many locals live with.
I was in a particularly fretful frame of mind that day. I had just been visiting with Kody and Ashlynn Kruesel, a couple in their early 30s. Last August, the Kruesels’ tiny village of Monte Lake, a half-hour drive east of Kamloops, was engulfed by the White Rock Lake fire, one of those few really large fires that Flannigan mentioned. In a matter of eight hours, its flames travelled 18 kilometres and consumed at least 28 homes and one business. The Kruesels were able to evacuate in time, but just barely. After driving for 45 minutes, glowing embers from the fire were still floating down onto their truck. When they returned home the next day, they discovered that every one of their outbuildings—including a garage, a garden shed, a workshop and an old sauna—had been destroyed. The A-frame house they’d bought two years earlier had been spared. Their neighbours’ homes on either side, however, were completely gutted. Almost a year later, the fire’s unbearable caprice was still evident—I saw a scorched hand cart lying in the mud, one rubber wheel intact and the other, just inches away, completely melted.
While the Kruesels fled the fire at first, they returned to help fight it. For several days after the fire blew through Monte Lake, they told me, the BC Wildfire Service was nowhere to be seen. Kody, a former CN heavy equipment operator whose father had been a volunteer fireman, quickly joined forces with some neighbours, taking up hoses, pumps and buckets. The fire front had come and gone, but there were still numerous spot fires that needed to be put out. A change in the wind could have been lethal, but there were homes to salvage, animals to save. Days later, Solicitor General Mike Farnworth publicly excoriated Monte Lake residents who defied the evacuation order, saying they were putting themselves and firefighters at risk. “We didn’t want to be here,” Kody said. “It wasn’t fun. But this is my home—I’m not going anywhere if nobody else is taking care of it.” When firefighters showed up in Monte Lake, the Kruesels said they were apologetic. “ ‘We’re super embarrassed we weren’t allowed up here,’ ” Kody remembered BC Wildfire firefighters telling him. “ ‘This is our job. We should have been up here.’ ”
I talked with the Kruesels on their front porch, as their ducks gurgled nearby and their black cat, Robin, nuzzled my leg. All around us, the devastation of last summer was still on full display. Houses reduced to cinder-block foundations, pooling with brackish water. Mounds of scrap and brush being belatedly burned. Further down the road, the charred, flattened husks of cars piled up against each other. The horizon was dominated by now-familiar dead, black trees—silent, skeletal sentries at a crime scene.
But it was a crime scene in which the survivors, broken and sad, kept living, reminded daily of their trauma. The Kruesels had moved to Monte Lake because it was one of the few places where they could afford to buy a house, but also because they loved the hiking and kayaking that were literally in their backyard. After the fire, the local roads they used for camping and fishing were all closed, choked off by fallen and dead trees that still hadn’t been removed. With the woodlands decimated, there was nothing to break the wind that frequently whipped through the community. There was an arsonist in the area, too, Kody said, who had, incredibly, started 18 fires in a single day. It was drizzling as we talked, but Kody was nervous about the coming fire season. “We’re going to have a week, maybe two, of rain,” he said. “And then we’re going to hit another dry summer again. So we’re a little on edge.”
When I asked what they could do to prepare for future fires, Kody shrugged. “You go slowly,” he said. “You try to purchase some sprinklers and generators and pumps. But it all costs money. And what do you pick as a priority?” Ashlynn works as an office manager at Kamloops Alarm, a security company, but Kody is currently unemployed, nursing some bad tendinitis. Their insurance had expired before the fire hit. Aside from a tiny GoFundMe that a friend had set up—it raised a few hundred dollars—they had received no financial assistance. Thanks to the fire, though, they’ve become much closer to their neighbours, solidarity bred of tragedy. They’ve formed a private Facebook group, making sure everybody has each other’s phone numbers, knows exactly how many people live in each home, how many animals they have, and what kind of equipment they can offer in case of another fire. Everyone has an escape route planned. There’s a rough chain of command. There are plans to co-purchase a large truck outfitted with a big water tank and pump. If someone sees a fire anywhere, they immediately inform the group. It’s all improvisatory—“half-assed,” in Kody’s words—but at least it provides some security. “We’ve learned we can’t rely on our own government,” Kody said, “so we’ve come together as a community.”
The Kruesels are angry at a lot of people: the Red Cross, the logging companies, the media, the looters and the looky-loos—tourists who still occasionally pass through Monte Lake, snapping pics of the ruins. But it is BC Wildfire that draws their greatest ire.
The BC Wildfire Service is a division of the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development. Its basic job is to manage and mitigate wildfires on behalf of the provincial government, and to protect lives and values (the agency’s word). The agency has about 1,700 firefighters and support staff and works with many other organizations: the First Nations’ Emergency Services Society of B.C. and the Forest Enhancement Society of B.C., as well as local fire departments and private firefighting companies. It provides equipment, personnel and strategy during the fire season and is also responsible, alongside private landowners, for the maintenance and mitigation of forests and grasslands, including the use of prescribed burns. Like organizations in comparable fire zones—California’s Cal Fire and Quebec’s SOPFEU—BC Wildfire works with firefighters from other places, who are able to parachute in when their own regions are not experiencing overwhelming threats. After the 2021 season, the provincial government made BC Wildfire expand its year-round operations. It also provided its biggest budget to date. Of $600 million earmarked for climate-related disasters, prevention and recovery, the agency received $453 million that would be spent on mitigation and risk-reduction, various preparedness initiatives, forest road maintenance and better public alert systems.
The money was welcome, for sure, with some of it going toward more prescribed burns in an attempt to correct decades of poor forest management. But it wasn’t enough, according to many residents I spoke with. There are deeper, more intractable problems within the organization. Ranchers, farmers and foresters, people who have lived and worked on the land their entire lives, say they are repeatedly ignored when wildfires break out, or their equipment—CATs that could be used to dig fire breaks, say—goes unused. After the 2003 and 2017 fire seasons, reports were commissioned to determine what went wrong, with both strongly recommending the same thing: that BC Wildfire make better use of local knowledge. Now, years later, this remains an issue. “It’s still very much an agency-led approach,” Kira Hoffman, the fire ecologist, said of BC Wildfire. “If someone hasn’t gone through their accreditation or certification process, BC Wildfire doesn’t think that person knows what they’re doing.”
“The Sparks Lake fire—last summer’s largest—devoured nearly 96,000 hectares of land and trees”
Eighty per cent of all Indigenous communities live in forested areas, and the hunters and gatherers in those communities, in particular, know best the roads, the water sources, the wind patterns and which parts of the woods are heaviest with fuel—in short, all the things you need to know to put out a fire. At the same time, and crucially, because of a lack of money and decent infrastructure, wildfire disproportionately affects those communities.
Mike Anderson, a 72-year-old professional forester who runs the Skeetchestn Natural Resources Corporation, watched the Sparks Lake fire build for two weeks. While the Skeetchestn Indian Band was forced to evacuate, scattering band members for a month, Anderson’s crew of about 15 stayed behind to fight the fire. They set up a command centre where firefighters and volunteers could be fed, dug large firebreaks to guide flames into prescribed burn areas and put out spot fires. When BC Wildfire showed up a few days later, Anderson and his crew repeatedly offered advice and guidance, but were frequently ignored or told to get out of the way. They were told they didn’t have the right equipment or training, Anderson said, or that they weren’t properly registered. “What I witnessed was mismanagement and ignorance by BC Wildfire Service,” Anderson told me, adding that the agency was “arrogant” and “territorial.” Hoffman argues that the root issue is both obvious and complex—colonialism itself. “The thing about fire is that it is so embedded in Indigenous sovereignty,” she said. “It becomes this huge issue with Crown land, and who owns what.”
By the time the Sparks Lake fire had been put out—as had another one that followed on its heels—Anderson had watched, heartbroken, as two-thirds of his woodlot, which he’d grown, tended and selectively logged for 35 years, went up in smoke. So had one hundred per cent of Skeetchestn’s woodlots. Darrel Draney, the band’s Kukpi7, or chief, was furious and saddened by it all. His community included generations of firekeepers, experts in the ways fire behaves and should be treated. Draney insisted that future fires could largely be prevented if his territorial patrol, and the patrols of other Indigenous communities, had sufficient funds and the proper equipment to fight them. “If we were resourced properly,” he told the CBC last year, “there wouldn’t be 300 big fires in B.C.; there’d be 20, maybe 30.” While no Skeetchestn structures were ultimately harmed, much of the land surrounding the community was burned, damaging valuable hunting grounds and watersheds for decades.
Anderson and Draney later proposed to BC Wildfire that every rural band’s natural resources centre be staffed with firekeepers and people who know the land, whom the agency could officially train to serve as an initial attack crew on fires. “Any fire, if you get on it right away, is not much of a fire,” Anderson said. “If you’re there when the fire’s an acre, and you have the right equipment, it’s not much of an issue.” When I spoke to Anderson, he and Draney were still waiting for their proposal to be taken up.
Communication and clarity seemed to be a problem in general for BC Wildfire. A number of people I spoke with were unclear about why the agency set particular back burns—a controlled burn to direct the fire—or why it wasn’t fighting fires at night, when it was cooler. Most significantly, there was confusion about why firefighters were in one place and not another, or why it took them so long to get to certain fires.
BC Wildfire’s general policy is to put out a fire wherever and whenever it starts, no matter how close it is to human development. This is largely because in B.C., almost every square foot of land is valuable—as timber, as a pipeline route, for housing or highways. Ontario, by contrast, has a policy of letting a fire take its course unless it directly threatens a community. The point, says Mike Flannigan, is twofold: one, fire is natural and can often be beneficial. Two, trying to always fight fire, especially now, is both counterproductive and a waste of resources. Even with firefighters working all year and around the clock, there are just too many fires for them to keep up. “Canadian fire management agencies are among the best in the world,” Flannigan told me. “They’re well-trained and professional. But they can’t put out all the fires all the time.”
In 2021, BC Wildfire couldn’t count on assistance from other jurisdictions because so many places were dealing with the same problem (and the pandemic made travel challenging). Firefighters were completely overwhelmed, constantly endangered and separated from their families for weeks on end. Ian Meier, the executive director of BC Wildfire, told me there were periods last summer with 80 new fires a day, and it was just too much. “The system gets overloaded,” he said. “There’s more fire than resources.”
When I spoke with Meier in May, he still sounded exhausted. He’s been with the agency for 25 years, and none of the criticism that I passed along was news to him, especially after last year, when a number of people—Kamloops-South Thompson Liberal MLA Todd Stone, Thompson-Nicola Regional District chair Ken Gillis, every surviving Lyttonite—expressed their disappointment and anger with the government’s response. Meier acknowledged, wearily, that the complaints—about the poor communication, the insufficient cooperation with Indigenous and local communities—were things that the agency was working on and slowly getting better at. “We’re using a year-round workforce to connect to those communities to do cross-training,” he said. “We work together so when it’s time to hit the ground running, we’re ready to go. Each year we make incremental change and we’ll continue to do that.” He talked about forging better relationships with First Nations leaders. Last summer, for example, through an agreement with BC Wildfire, the Simpcw First Nation established an Indigenous initial attack team that will fight fires in Simpcw territory. “We’re committed to learning and changing,” Meier said. “In some people’s eyes, we’re probably not changing quick enough.”
Is anybody changing quickly enough? BC Wildfire was created as a response to emergency. But wildfire is now a permanent emergency, an emergency that exceeds our imagination. This is the story of our entire lurching response to the climate crisis, one that’s been ad hoc, fragmentary, too-little-too-late. It’s not just B.C., and it’s not just wildfire. It’s drought in the Prairies, floods in Ontario, killer heat waves across Quebec.
You can’t hold climate change accountable. You can’t get mad at it, you can’t point a finger at it, you can’t sue it. It’s so big, and so frightening, you can barely get your mind around it. So, in the face of that helplessness, you take a hard look at the human stuff, the fixable stuff. You make sacrifices and changes. That doesn’t mean giving up, but it means giving up certain things and adding others. You don’t go to the beach when the smoke’s too bad. You don’t let your kids ride their dirt bikes because an errant spark might ignite a fire.
FireSmart is a national organization dedicated to reducing losses from wildfire. All across B.C., communities as diverse as Whistler, Coquitlam, Belcarra and Slocan have developed community wildfire resiliency plans that incorporate a number of FireSmart mitigation principles and programs. Such plans include figuring out a community’s best evacuation routes, clearing nearby forest fuel, hardening homes (i.e., ditching cedar hedges, installing fire-resistant siding, cleaning gutters of pine needles). Common-sense stuff, really, but not top of mind when you think of wildfires as a once-in-a-lifetime event rather than something that’s now likely to happen every few years at least.
Other more challenging and expensive measures are starting to be implemented. Like including lessons on Indigenous fire practices in the elementary school curriculum and spending more on mental health supports for burnt-out firefighters. Like updating the emergency alert system to include extreme heat, fire and flood. Like turning hockey arenas into fireproof permanent evacuation centres.
What people aren’t doing, usually, is moving. I asked everyone I met in B.C. who’d been affected by the fires if they’d considered going somewhere else. Most said no—this was their home, and besides, where would they go? In West Kelowna, some insurance companies now refuse to insure new homes that are being built too close to fire zones. Even wealthy Vancouver, surrounded by Stanley Park and Grouse Mountain, is susceptible to wildfire. Then there are Indigenous communities whose people have lived in their territory for thousands of years. Having had their homes stolen at least twice—once by the Canadian government, and then by fire exacerbated by that government’s policies—they remain defiantly rooted.
During their evacuation, Marshall Potts and Jo-Anne Beharrell were allowed to come back every other day to check on their property and the animals they had to leave behind. These so-called wellness checks were encouraging on one hand—firefighters fed their cats, their house was still standing—but also, increasingly, depressing. Though their house survived, their furniture and mattresses and clothes were all black with soot. A sprinkler had shot up under their roof, and water had poured in through the ceiling, wrecking the insulation. All their fencing was destroyed, so other ranchers’ cattle had wandered onto their land, devouring their grass. They had lost one of their cats. And, of course, all the beauty—one of the reasons that they had moved to the area to begin with—was transformed. Half of the trees on their property were gone, and the view from their living room would now be one of stump-strewn grass instead of woodland. Other ranchers, they heard, had to put down several dozen cows, some of which were burning alive, others half-dead from smoke inhalation. One day, down by the creek where they had enjoyed that picnic lunch the day the fire started, they found the rotting corpse of a cow. One of the cow’s calves had made it up to their property, terrified, and when Potts tried to rope it, it ran off and disappeared.
Ten months later, when I visited the couple in their living room, they seemed tired and demoralized. They were fighting with the insurance company, which had misplaced their claim for several months. It was difficult to get tradespeople and materials up for repairs. A friend was installing drywall—so much for the wood walls they planned to build themselves. “I kind of wish it had all burned down,” Beharrell said. “Because the cleanup and the fix-up is harder than a rebuild.”
Because of the lack of green trees, it’s highly unlikely that their particular corner of the world will burn again. Or at least not for a few decades, anyway. The couple will, with time, adjust to the new landscape and eventually get new cattle that will have new land to graze on. They will keep rebuilding, and add a new recording studio. They’re even considering hosting a music festival on their property. “This was a bit of an ego punch,” Potts said of the fire. “But you want to find something good in the problem, in the chaos.”
During their evacuation and the months after, Potts recorded an album titled The Storm. It was inspired, naturally, by the cataclysm of the previous summer. But Potts, a surprising and resolute optimist, didn’t want to dwell on the misery in his lyrics. “When the wind comes it brings change,” he sings on the title track. “And only truth alone remains. ’Cause it reveals your pain, that’s why the storm came.” He realized that he had taken the beauty for granted for so long, had always assumed that it, and the land, and his home, would be here forever, unchanged.
This article appears in print in the August 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine. Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here, or buy the issue online here. Click here to subscribe to our e-mail newsletter to receive the best of Maclean’s directly in your inbox.