With four hundred fires still burning across his province, British Columbia Premier David Eby surveyed damaged in interior B.C. on Monday and announced the formation of an expert task force on drought, fire, floods, heat and other emergencies.
Mother Nature has been rough on Canada’s Pacific province in this era of rapid global warming and extreme weather.
Eby is acting in a fire season in which 8,687 square miles have already burned, with one fire in northeast B.C. larger in size than the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. The province, once nicknamed Canada’s “lotus land”, has been hit with a succession of climate calamities in recent years.
“With the profound effects of climate change, this year’s unprecedented wildfire season has had a devastating impact on people in British Columbia,” Eby said in a statement. “Hundreds have lost their homes, tens of thousands were forced to evacuate and two heroic young B.C. firefighters tragically lost their lives.”
The fires of 2023 have hit populated and popular recreation areas, notably West Kelowna on Okanagan Lake and the Shuswap Lake region east of Kamloops.
The Bush Creek fire, near spawning grounds of the great Adams River sockeye salmon run, has destroyed or significantly damaged one hundred and seventy properties. Fires have moved rapidly, one fire jumping Okanagan Lake.
A tipoff of coming conflagrations came twenty years ago, when a fire spread from Okanogan Mountain Provincial Park into Kelowna, a major city in the B.C. interior. But experts claim the provincial government, both under Eby’s New Democratic Party and the (not very liberal) Liberal Party, have failed to take a proactive response.
“We already know what we have to do,” Robert Gray, a wildfire ecologist who contributed to the landmark Firestorm 2003 report, told the Vancouver Sun. Such measures, familiar on both sides of the 49th Parallel, include thinning forests, clearing underbrush, and removing debris on the forest floor.
But the task force is being asked to coordinate response to contrasting climate extremes. “This has been the worst wildfire season our province has faced and while we are coping with a historic drought, we must be ready for the risk of severe flooding later this year,” said Eby.
“These crises are indeed scary for many people and government will be there to adapt and immediately support people, no matter what we face, together.”
Togetherness has not been the rule this summer. The Bush Creek fire, near Shuswap Lake, has brought confrontations. The B.C. Wildfire Service set up roadblocks to keep people away from the fire region, but numerous recreation property owners defied evacuation orders, choosing to defend their homes.
Legislators from the opposition B.C. United Party (the former Liberals) have backed the property owners and called for “critical supplies” to be sent to those who stayed to fight the fire. A trio of lawmakers from impacted areas said in a statement: “These individuals should receive the supplies they need to continue to protect properties and structures in their communities: The government must order an end to this blockade of vital resources immediately.”
Eby and Minister of Emergency Management Bowinn Ma received a look at the Bush Creek fire on Monday. The premier acknowledges that British Columbia and Canada have seen lots of reports over the years. The creation of royal task forces is a time-honored Canadian tactic of punting serious problems down the road.
“British Columbians have seen a lot of reviews, studies and emergency-related issues,” said Eby. “The goal here with the task force is to avoid the fate of many of these reviews, to make sure that as we are learning what we can do better, we’re deploying it right away.”
The announcement in B.C. came as, south of the border, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration was announcing a new record of climate catastrophes. With nearly a quarter of the year left, the United States has already experienced 23 disasters costing at least $1 billion.
Two recent events made for the record, the wildfire that destroyed Lahaina on Maui, and Hurricane Idalia that hit northern Florida.
The planet has just experienced its hottest month on record, with heat waves hitting from Southwest and Midwest states in the U.S., to Western Europe and the Mediterranean, to China and to Quebec and the Northwest Territories of Canada.
Wildfire stories have ranged from evacuation of Yellowknife, the one city in Canada’s N.W.T., to tourists fleeing flames on resort islands in Greece.
Smoke from fires in Quebec gave New York and Quebec the world’s worst air quality early in the summer. High water temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico caused Idalia to soar from a category one to a category four hurricane.
A look at what former British Columbia Premier John Horgan has described as “the new normal.” The June, 2021, heat wave brought Canada’s highest-ever temperature of 49.6C (121.3 Fahrenheit) to the Fraser Canyon town of Lytton. A flash fire burned the town and killed two people several days later.
The heat wave was felt everywhere.
One of North America’s premier hiking adventures is the trail that circles 12,972’ Mt. Robson, highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, to reach aptly named Berg Lake. The record temperatures caused glacial ice to melt. A rampaging Robson River wiped out bridges and large sections of the trail.
In November of 2021, a succession of atmospheric rivers flooded the lower Fraser Valley, even re-creating long drained Sumas Lake.
Bridges were wiped out on the Coquihalla Highway, main route to the interior. Vancouver was, for a time, cut off by land from the rest of Canada.
Yeoman work rebuilt the Coquihalla bridges in a matter of weeks.
Two years later, however, the problem is drought and fires, and smoke blowing over much of the province. One long-term fear is that big fires will smolder through the winter. Another is that trees will not regrow after intense burns, and that forest land will turn into grasslands..
The province must face what Eby called a “near-constant series of emergencies… as a result of climate change.”
And the premier vowed that response to emergencies won’t just be top down., saying: “We could be doing a better job of leveraging local knowledge and expertise when it comes to preventing and fighting wildfires.”
As the premier toured the Bush Creek fire zone, evacuation orders were announced in northwest B.C., near Fort St. John in northeast B.C., and near Vanderhoof in the interior mountain ranges of eastern B.C.
The fire season is far from over.