We are being tested by smoke, fire, heat and disease

As we emerge from the pandemic, Kamloopsians expect that summer, especially this summer, will be liberating.

image: Globe and Mail

After being cooped up all winter, carefully  cloistering ourselves and observing ceremonial cleansing, we look forward to being outside, basking in the glory of Kamloops’ legendary heat.

But this summer, the heat is oppressive. And like the pandemic, the smoke keeps us indoors. Now all we want to do is seek the refuge of an air conditioned shelter.

It all tests our resiliency and takes its toll on our psyche.

Instead of being rewarded for our good hygiene in fighting the pandemic, we are stuck inside as thick smoke from wildfires that blanket the city.

When you’re choking on smoke and your eyes are watering, it’s bad for your physical health to be outside. And it’s bad for your mental health to be inside.

We imagined that the “new normal” will be adjusting to a world in which most people are vaccinated and COVID-19 is just another bug in the cast of flu characters.

But our new normal will have to include hotter summers, wildfires and smoke. The areas burned will become even greater.

The area burned by wildfires in Canada has doubled since the early 1970s, says Dr. Mike Flannigan, research chair for fire science at Thompson Rivers University.

And it’s only going to get worse, says Flannigan, – it’s just a matter of how much worse. Modest predictive modelling suggests the area burned in Canada will double again by the end of the century; more aggressive modelling predicts an increase by 11 times.

We are getting familiar with the measurement of the smoke hazard –just how bad is it? The hazard is measured by the weight of smoke particles in a certain volume of air; specifically, the weight of PM2.5 particles in micrograms per cubic metre.

What makes the PM2.5 particles so potent is that they can affect every organ in the body, not just the lungs.

Sarah Henderson, scientific director in environmental health services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says that the particles are dangerous long before you can smell and taste the smoke. At levels of only 30 micrograms per cubic metre, adverse reactions begin:

“When it looks really bad, people think it is really bad,” she said. “But it becomes unhealthy long before it looks terrible. The immunological response ends up causing inflammation, and that inflammation is systemic.”

Concerned about the smoke hazard, I recently installed an air sensor, made by Purple Air, in my house. While the weekly average reading has been nine micrograms per cubic metre, which is safe, sometimes it peaks at over 50.

George Bonanno, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University, has studied people’s resiliency in the aftermath of hurricanes, terrorist attacks, life-threatening injuries and epidemics such as the 2003 SARS outbreak.

Bonanno’s research shows three common psychological responses to hardship. Two thirds of people are resilient and maintain relatively stable psychological and physical health. About 25 percent struggle temporarily with psychopathology such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder and then recover. And 10 percent suffer lasting psychological distress.

We are being tested on a number of fronts. Physical and mental illnesses are not a sign of weakness –they provide an occasion for everyone to rise to the challenge, to draw closer together and support those in need.

Can B.C. dodge eye-watering, throat-choking wildfires this summer?

Remember last summer when we rubbed shoulders at concerts and live theatre; cheek-to-jowl at our favourite restaurants and watering holes? Remember when we mingled in crowds at Music in the Park, Ribfest, and Hot Nite in the City –outside?

Image: New York Times

Then think of the wildfires of 2017 and 2018, when we huddled indoors, trying to escape the smoke that hung over Kamloops like a grey shroud seeping into every crevice of our homes.

I remember the wildfires of 2017. The skies were clear when I left Merritt after spending a few days camping nearby. I could see a wall of smoke as I approached Kamloops. When I entered it, my eyes began to water and my throat was irritated. Kamloops was right in the path of the Elephant Hill wildfire burning west of the city near Ashcroft. It was like a funnel directed by the prevailing winds right at Kamloops.

The Elephant Hill wildfire was the largest and most destructive wildfires in B.C.’s history. Then came the wildfires of 2018 which was even worse when an area 44 times that of Kamloops kilometres burned. There was no escaping the smoke that year. The province was blanketed with smoke.

The outlook for last year looked bad. Experts forecast more of the same because of a build-up of combustibles on the forest floor. But contrary to predictions, 2019 turned out to be wonderful.

Again this for this summer, the forecast appeared bad. Now I’m holding my breath, hoping the forecast is not true. Things look promising with long-range forecasts for the remainder of July being relatively cool and damp according to theweathernetwork.com.

And the Meteorological Service of Canada predicts the same:

“Summer is currently on hiatus it would seem. It will ‘return’ (was it ever here?) at some point in the future. Certainly today and looking into next week even, we are not seeing any signal, or sign that the weather will significantly change. Normally, by this time in the annual calendar, we would have seen one, perhaps two, dominant ridges of high pressure. This would have brought about long stretches of hot, dry weather (July 10, 2020.”

To lament the absence of a summer with hot, dry weather displays poor memory of what those tinder-dry conditions can bring. Cool, damp weather needs to be celebrated.

The isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic had us huddling indoors earlier in the spring but at least now we can go outdoors and enjoy nature’s beauty, albeit with physical isolation.

It would be unbearable if we were physically isolated by the pandemic and driven indoors by wildfire smoke.

Every week of relatively cool, damp weather is one week less of the potential wildfire season. Bring it on.

Kamloops has a reputation of delivering hot, dry summer days. That’s something I enjoy. But I would like to see Kamloops promoted as a place where you can safely breathe in the summer.

And next year, when the pandemic hopefully abates, my wish is that we can crowd together to and enjoy each other’s company in the smoke-free air as we did last year and with a bit of luck, this year as well.

 

A brief reprieve from smoke-filled summers

I gave a sigh of relief when this summer ended with no significant wildfires. The past two summers have been filled with eye-watering, throat-choking smoke so thick you couldn’t see across the street.

Image: New York Times

We were spared this year and, instead, read about the miserable wildfires in Brazil. The Group of Seven leaders indignantly berated Brazilian President Bolsonaro for allowing the burning of the “lungs of the earth.” In a token gesture, the G7 offered a measly $20 million to fight the fires and to send in “multilateral green helmets” to save the day.

The hypocrisy is palpable: the seven wealthiest countries on Earth extract $20-million worth of resources from Brazil every minute; Canada’s mining industry alone holds more than $10-billion in Brazilian assets (Arno Kopecky, Globe and Mail, September 6, 2019.)

If we are going to start enlisting ecowarriors to save the planet’s trees in the name of fighting climate change, Canada had better prepare to be invaded too.

Canada has the second-largest intact forest on Earth after the Amazon. Our boreal forest is being logged at the rate of 400,000 hectares per year and most of it turned in to Kleenex and toilet paper to supply the United States.

However, logging is not the biggest threat to Canada’s boreal forest –wildfires are. A study done by the journal Ecosphere in 2018 predicts that Canada is headed for a fivefold increase in the area burned by forest fires by the year 2100.

Last year, 1.2 million hectares of our forest went up in smoke. A similar amount of forest burned the summer before. So far this year, wildfires have only burned two per cent of that.

B.C. isn’t out of the woods by a long shot. I’d rather think that we are back to wildfire-free summers but that’s a nostalgic dream of summers past.

What’s more likely is that the years between the devastating wildfires of 2003 and 2017 were an anomaly. It was in 2003 that I was evacuated from my home in Westsyde, Kamloops, because of a fire across the street and  when the residents of Barriere and Kelowna watched helplessly as their homes burned to the ground.

After the “summer of fire” in 2003, the BC government appointed former Manitoba Premier Gary Filmon to head a commission of inquiry. The commission’s February 2004 report warned of bigger fires in the future: “The wildfire zone is not only getting closer to people, but people are getting closer to the wildfire zone.”

Now forest-fire ecologist Robert Gray now says: “the problem is as big, or bigger than it was then, because, of course, the conditions continue to deteriorate. The areas that we thought were low to moderate hazard are probably high hazard now because, of course, that was all before the mountain pine beetle epidemic.”

Then there’s the impact of climate change says Gray “which is going to put more and more pressure on trees. They’re fighting for light and moisture and nutrients. This is just going to stress them out. We’re going to have mortality. And then we have forest fires and we go back and replant them in the high-density stands again. We are awash in fuel in BC.”

My relief at a wildfire-free summer this year is dampened by the prospects for next summer.