BC-Mike-Graeme-Shuswap-wildfires2023-23

Looking for hope on a smoky horizon

In this week’s newsletter, we get in our feelings about the tens of thousands of people forced to flee their homes, devastation, helplessness, hope and fighting for a better future
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A masked resident stopped to take a last look at their B.C. town before evacuating to the boat launch on bike
It’s not wrong to want an escape. The grim realities of Canada’s wildfire season are unrelenting, so haunting and exhausting, it’s understandable that any one of us might want to tune out for a while.

That’s what I was hoping to do over the past week as I went on my annual pilgrimage to Campbell River, B.C., where I, along with a growing group of families, snorkel one of Vancouver Island’s most celebrated salmon runs. 

But our enjoyment was eventually clouded, quite literally, with the devastation of B.C.’s out-of-control fires as smoke crept into overhead skies, obscuring the horizon and distant mountain ranges. And our daily river excursions were interspersed with updates about friends and families evacuating their homes, fleeing day and night with whatever possessions they could scramble to pack in their hurry. 

We sat in our camp chairs, watching updates stream in on social media, sharing clips with one another from doorbell cameras of devastation and firefighters working overnight to keep a single home from burning down.

One evening, a group of us leaned over my niece Taylor’s phone, watching a video on Instagram of her friend fleeing West Kelowna’s devastating fires by boat. Smoke clouds the scene and a dock and moored boat burn on the water like something out of a Hollywood set. We watched the video over and over and over again, quietly whispering our dismay. A day later we realized the dock and boat aflame in the video were at the treasured family cabin of Taylor’s boyfriend, a detail she somehow missed in the initial horror-watch of that scene.
 
A dock and boat are seen aflame in this GIF
Video submitted by Madison Bachler
As these images were coming in, I learned my husband’s cousin and his very pregnant partner were also evacuated from their Kelowna home, wondering if the baby room they’d just set up was already lost to flames. Then my sister and her family were forced from their home in the Shuswap region as two fires converged, threatening numerous small communities, farms and homesteads in their path.

Photojournalist Mike Graeme, who has also been fighting wildfires for six seasons, pulled out his camera to document that megafire when it grew too big to fight and forced him and his fellow crew members to eventually flee the area.

The very idea of “escape” began to shift in my mind as I thought about the nature of stress, rest and relief. Of course tens of thousands of people have no hope of a holiday as they seek refuge in one of the most destructive years of fire in Canada’s history. 

According to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, there are currently 1,035 active fires burning across the country, 368 in B.C. alone. A staggering 15 million hectares (a jump of nearly 2 million hectares since last week) have burned this year so far — and there’s no end in sight to the inferno. The heavy blanket of smoke from fires in the Pacific Northwest stretches from San Diego to Great Slave Lake.

So … escape? No. Not this summer. And not likely for many more to come. 

And yet there is hope on the horizon. Amid the stress and chaos, so many communities have come together in a show of incredible resilience, taking care of one another in ways big and small. 

Through all the harrowing updates I received over the last week, I was also sent this video of a firefighter in Kelowna, taking a quick moment to water an evacuated homeowner’s plants.
 
A gif of a firefighter taking a quick moment to water an evacuated homeowner’s plants.
Bless.

But here’s the thing: it’s not small acts of heroism and generosity that are going to bring us a better, safer future. That hinges on smarter, climate-realistic governance. It hinges on actual accountability for climate targets that are ambitious and meaningful. It hinges on investing in climate-smart measures that don’t lock us into more pollution for decades to come (I’m looking at you and your LNG ambitions, B.C. And you and your decision to pause renewable energy, Alberta.).

In that sense, the work at The Narwhal continues on, unabated. We do it for you and for all our evacuated neighbours and for the salmon in the streams we hope to witness returning year after year after year. 

Take care and don’t forget to love your neighbour’s garden,

Carol Linnitt
Executive editor


P.S. We want to hear from Narwhal readers about what we can do to serve you more. Have you taken our audience survey yet? Tell us about the stories you crave and we’ll enter you to win two exclusive Narwhal crewnecks for you and a friend!
 
The Narwhal's Francesca Fionda and farmer Laura Bennett hold up their identical Nalgenes with Narwhal stickers.

A case of the identical Nalgenes


Mining reporter Francesca Fionda was grabbing coffee on her way back from Vancouver Island to the Lower Mainland when she noticed someone else in line with the same Nalgene bottle as hers — with a matching Narwhal sticker on it.

Turns out, it was Laura Bennett, a farmer on Quadra Island, B.C., and a member of our pod. She had just dropped her dog off for surgery, and was happy to chat with another Narwhal about all things journalism. 

“It was a treat to meet you,” she later emailed Francesca. “Heartening to know that folks like you are speaking truth to power by telling stories that need to be shared.”

Thanks for fuelling our public-interest journalism and being a longtime member, Laura! (Puppy Russell is doing great post-op, by the way!)

 
BECOME A NARWHAL

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What we’re reading


For The Globe and Mail, Eric Andrew-Gee, Lindsay Jones and Jane Skrypnek write about how this summer the sun turned red — and how people in Canada will navigate the reality of climate change having seen and smelled the smoky future.

Tyee reporter Jen St. Denis takes readers inside the Yellowknife evacuation last week, and how residents are celebrating small wins amid the fires.

In Grist, Lylla Younes zeroes in on how wildfires leave a trail of dangerous chemicals behind, and what that means for those returning home to Maui.
 
What it feels like after reading climate news sometimes. We get it — that’s why our reporters strive hard to bring you solutions, even when they seem far, far away. Tell your friends to sign up for our newsletter, especially if they’re feeling like this.
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