Policy Topics

Amidst a record fire season, British Columbia tries to get ready for future climate damage

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.

Joel Connelly

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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