he news from the natural world these days is mostly about water, and understandably so.
We hear about the record-setting amounts of water that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston and other Gulf cities and towns, mixing with petrochemicals to pollute and poison on an unfathomable scale. We hear too about the epic floods that have displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Bangladesh to Nigeria (though we don’t hear enough). And we are witnessing, yet again, the fearsome force of water and wind as Hurricane Irma — one of the most powerful storms ever recorded — leaves devastation behind in the Caribbean, with Florida now in its sights.
Yet for large parts of North America, Europe, and Africa, this summer has not been about water at all. In fact it has been about its absence; it’s been about land so dry and heat so oppressive that forested mountains exploded into smoke like volcanoes. It’s been about fires fierce enough to jump the Columbia River; fast enough to light up the outskirts of Los Angeles like an invading army; and pervasive enough to threaten natural treasures, like the tallest and most ancient sequoia trees and Glacier National Park.
For millions of people from California to Greenland, Oregon to Portugal, British Columbia to Montana, Siberia to South Africa, the summer of 2017 has been the summer of fire. And more than anything else, it’s been the summer of ubiquitous, inescapable smoke.
For years, climate scientists have warned us that a warming world is an extreme world, in which humanity is buffeted by both brutalizing excesses and stifling absences of the core elements that have kept fragile life in equilibrium for millennia. At the end of the summer of 2017 — with major cities submerged in water and others licked by flames — we are currently living through Exhibit A of this extreme world, one in which natural extremes come head-to-head with social, racial, and economic ones.
I checked the forecast before coming to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast, a ragged strip of coastline marked by dark evergreen forests that butt up against rocky cliffs and beaches strewn with driftwood, the charming flotsam from decades of sloppy logging operations. Reachable only by ferry or floatplane, this is the part of the world where my parents live, where my son was born, and where my grandparents died. Though it still feels like home, we now only get here for a few weeks a year.
The government of Canada weather site predicted that the next week would be glorious: an uninterrupted block of sun, clear skies, and higher than average temperatures. I pictured hot afternoons paddling in the Pacific and still, starry nights.
But when we arrive in early August, a murky blanket of white has engulfed the coast and the temperature is cool enough for a sweater. Forecasts are often wrong, but this is more complicated. Somewhere up there, above the muck, the sky is clear of clouds. The sun is particularly hot. Yet intervening in those truths is a factor the forecasters did not account for: huge quantities of smoke, blown up to 400 miles from the province’s interior, where about 130 wildfires are burning out of control.
Enough smoke has descended to turn the sky from periwinkle blue to this low, unbroken white. Enough smoke to reflect a good portion of the sun’s heat back into space, artificially pushing temperatures down. Enough smoke to transform the sun itself into an angry pinpoint of red fire surrounded by a strange halo, unable to burn through the relentless haze. Enough smoke to blot out the stars. Enough smoke to absorb any possible sunsets. At the end of the day, the red ball abruptly disappears, only to be replaced by a strange burnt-orange moon.
The smoke has created its own weather system, powerful enough to transform the climate not just where we are, but in a stretch of territory that appears to cover roughly 100,000 square miles. And the smoke, a giant smudge on the satellite images, respects no borders: not only is about a third of British Columbia choked, but so are large parts of the Pacific Northwest, including Seattle, Bellingham, and Portland, Oregon. In the age of #fakenews, this is #fakeweather, a mess in the sky created, in large part, by toxic ignorance and political malpractice.
Up and down the coast, the government has issued air quality warnings, urging people to avoid strenuous activity. Beyond a certain threshold, fine particulate matter in the air is officially unsafe, bad enough to cause health problems. The air in parts of Vancouver is three times above that safe threshold, with some smaller communities on the coast significantly worse off. Elderly people and other sensitive populations are being urged to stay inside — or, better yet, to go somewhere with a decent air filtration system. One local official recommends a trip to the mall.
At the epicenter of the disaster, where the flames are closing in, the air quality is far worse. Anything over 25 micrograms of fine particulates per cubic meter is considered unsafe. Kamloops, the city currently housing many of the evacuees, averages 684.5 micrograms per cubic meter. That rivals Beijing on some of its very worst days. Airlines cancel flights, and people suffering from breathing problems reportedly pack emergency rooms.
Since this disaster began, some 840 separate fires have ignited, forcing, at this point, some 50,000 people to evacuate their homes, according to the Red Cross. In early July, the government declared a rare state of emergency and by the time we arrive, it has already been extended twice. Hundreds of structures have been razed, some whole communities, including indigenous reserves, have been mostly reduced to ash.
So far, roughly 1,800 square miles of forest, farm, and grassland have burned. That makes this the second-largest fire disaster in British Columbia’s history — and it’s still going strong, putting the all-time record within grasp.
I call a friend in Kamloops. “Everyone who can is taking their kids far away, especially little ones.”
Which puts things into perspective for us on the coast. It may be smoky, but we’re damn lucky.
It Will Blow Over
Since the new year, and the new U.S. administration, I haven’t taken a day off, let alone a weekend. Like so many others, I’ve attended way too many meetings and marched until my feet blistered. I wrote a book in a blur, then toured with it. And my husband Avi and I helped start a new political organization. Throughout the winter and spring, “B.C. in August” was our family mantra. It was the finish line (albeit a temporary one), and we fully planned to collapse on it. It was also the way we kept our 5-year-old son Toma in the game. On cold nights in the east, we mapped out the forested walks we would take, the canoe trips, the swims. We imagined the blackberries we would pick, the crumbles we would bake; we listed the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and old friends we would visit.
This break (“self-care” in the parlance of my younger co-workers) took on mythic qualities in our house. Which may be why I am a bit slow to clue-in to the seriousness of the fires — and the smoke.
On the first day, I’m sure the sun will burn it away by noon. By evening, I announce that it will blow over by morning, revealing at least a glimpse of actual sky. For the first week, I greet each day hopefully, convinced that the drab light peeking through the curtains is just morning mist. Every day I am wrong.
The placid weather forecast that seemed so promising before we traveled turns out to be a curse. Sunny, windless days mean that the smoke, once it is upon us, parks over our heads like an unmoveable outdoor ceiling. Day after day after day.
My allergies are going nuts. I bath my eyes in drops and pop antihistamines well beyond the recommended dosage. Toma breaks out in hives so severe he needs steroids.
I keep taking my glasses off and cleaning them, rubbing them first with my shirt, then a microfiber cloth, then proper glass cleaner. Nothing helps. Nothing makes the smudge disappear.
A week into the whiteout, the world begins to feel small. Life beyond the smoke starts to seem like a rumor. At the ocean’s edge, we can usually look across the Salish Sea to Vancouver Island; now we strain to see an outcropping of rock a few hundred feet from shore.
I’ve been on this coast for whole winters when we barely saw the sun. I learned to love the steely beauty, the infinite shades of grey chiseled in the mountains. The low sky and the movement of the mist. But this is different. There’s a lifeless quality to the smoke, it just sits there, motionless and monotone.
Blankets of smog are something a lot of people on this planet have learned to live with in big polluted cities, such as Beijing, New Delhi, São Paulo, and Los Angeles. Smoke is a little different. In part because you know that you are not breathing pollution from power plants or exhaust from cars but rather trees that were very recently alive. You are breathing in forest.
I decide that the animals are depressed. The seals seem to pop their heads up in a purely utilitarian fashion, just to take a breath and then disappear again beneath the gray surface. They do not play. The eagles, I am convinced, are flying for function, not fun, no soaring or wind surfing. There’s little doubt I’m imagining all this, projecting, anthropomorphizing — it’s a bad habit.
I email a friend in Seattle, a prominent environmentalist, to ask him how he is faring in the smoke. He reports that the birds have stopped singing, and he is mad all the time. At least I’m not the only one.
What If We’re Next?
It begins to strike me how precarious it all is, this business of not being on fire.
This part of British Columbia, technically a temperate rainforest, is a tinderbox. So far this summer, less than half an inch of rain has fallen. The forest groundcover, usually moist and squishy, is yellow and desiccated and crunches underfoot. You can smell the flammability.
The roads are lined with yellow signs announcing a total ban on open fires. Every time we turn on the radio, we hear warnings, increasingly frantic, about open fires, cigarettes tossed out of cars, and fireworks. One guy in the fire zone earned himself a night in jail and over $1,000 in fines after he drunkenly celebrated the fact that his home had not burned down by setting off fireworks — which could well have set yet another blaze.
It’s clear that one lightning storm — or a couple dumb campers — would be enough to send this place up. We’ve come close before. Two years ago, a serious blaze threatened part of the coast about 20 minutes from here, taking the life of a local man who was helping to fight the flames. Yet despite the years I have spent living here, until this week, I’ve never really thought about what it would mean if a fire like that ever got out of control. Now I do, and it’s unsettling. The Sunshine Coast has a year-round population of 30,000 people served by a single highway that ends in a ferry dock. So what the hell does an emergency evacuation look like in a place with no roads out?
I ask local friends. They look worried and talk about who has which kind of boat.
A Death in a Blueberry Field
Nine days into the whiteout, some terrible news arrives. A farmworker in smoke-choked Sumas, Washington — less than a mile from the Canadian border — has died in a Seattle hospital. Honesto Silva Ibarra came to the U.S. from Mexico on a temporary H-2A visa to work through the harvest season. He was 28 years old and had been picking blueberries at Sarbanand Farms, owned by California-based Munger Farms, when he started feeling sick.
Silva’s co-workers blame his death on unsafe working conditions: long hours, few breaks, insufficient food and cold water — all compounded by the heavy smoke drifting in from British Columbia. “The workers have been overworked, underfed, have not been hydrated enough, and this has been going on for weeks,” said Rosalinda Guillen, director of the advocacy group Community to Community Development. Some workers had fainted on the job, they told reporters.
A representative for Munger Farms told The Intercept that Silva died after running out of his diabetes medication and that heat and wildfire smoke had “nothing to do” with his death. The company also claims it did all it could to save him. Investigations are ongoing.
The way the company treated Silva’s co-workers when they raised their complaints is a chilling window into just how precarious life can be for America’s thousands of guest workers. After Silva was hospitalized, workers staged a one-day strike to demand answers and better conditions. Sixty-six of them were immediately fired for insubordination. They found themselves without means to get home to Mexico and without payment for their final days of work. After setting up a protest camp, marching to the company’s offices, and attracting local media, the workers won their back pay, and Munger has “voluntarily offered to provided safe transportation home for all of the terminated workers,” according to the spokesperson.
But they did not get their much-needed jobs back. Munger supplies Walmart, Whole Foods, Safeway, and Costco.
North of the border, there are similar reports of temporary farmworkers fainting and becoming sick on the job, with smoke apparently playing a role. And advocates point out that, rather than being looked after, their sponsoring employers often send sick workers home like defective goods. According to CBC, at least 10 workers in hot and smoky British Columbia were sent back to Mexico and Guatemala, “deemed too ill to work.”
A Highly Divided Disaster, as Usual
We learn the same lesson over and over again: In highly imbalanced societies, with deep inequalities reliably tracing racial fault lines, disasters don’t bring us all together in one fuzzy human family. They take pre-existing divides and deepen them further, so the people who were already getting most screwed over before the disaster get extra doses of pain during and after.
We know a fair bit about how that looks during storms, such as Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma. We understand less about fire. But that’s changing. We know, for instance, that as California struggles with a now-endless fire season, the state has become intensely reliant on prison labor, with inmates paid a staggeringly low hourly rate of $1 to do some of the most dangerous work fighting flames. We know that hundreds of South African workers were contracted to help battle Alberta’s Fort McMurray fire last year — only for them to stop working en masse after discovering that they were being paid significantly less than their Canadian counterparts, and less than press reports claimed they were being paid. They were promptly sent home.
We also know, as with floods, that our media gives far more coverage to house pets rescued from wildfires in the U.S. and Canada than it does to the human lives lost because of infernos in, say, Indonesia and Chile. A global 2012 study estimated that more than 300,000 people die annually as a result of smoke and the air pollution from wildfires, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.
And in British Columbia this summer, we learned still more about the way inequalities play out against a burning backdrop. Several indigenous leaders raised concerns that during fire emergencies, their communities do not receive the same level of urgent response as non-indigenous communities, whether for fighting the flames or for rebuilding afterward. With this in mind, several reserves directly threatened by fire refused to evacuate and a portion stayed behind to fight the flames — some with their own teams of trained firefighters and equipment, others with little more than garden hoses and sprinklers. In at least one case, the police responded by threatening to come in and remove children from their families, words with traumatic reverberations in a country that not so long ago systematically took indigenous children from their homes as a matter of policy.
In the end, no First Nations homes were raided and many were saved because of self-organized firefighting. Ryan Day, chief of the fire-threatened Bonaparte Indian Band, said, “If we all evacuated, we would have no houses on this reserve.”
A World With Two Suns
It’s almost a week into the smoke-out, and the moon is nearing full. Around here, people take full moons seriously; there are drug-fueled dance parties in the forest, and late-night kayak excursions, taking advantage of the extra light.
But when the almost-full moon rises in early August, I mistake it, at first, for the sun: It’s the same shape and almost the same fiery color.
For about four days, it’s as if we are on a different planet, one with two red suns and no moon at all.
It’s week two of the smoke-out, and the blackberries are finally ripe. We set out to collect them. It feels strange to be going through with this carefree summer ritual with the air so thick and the news so grim — but we do it anyway. Combining hiking with nonstop eating is one of Toma’s all-time favorite activities.
It’s pretty much a bust. With so little rain and such a weak sun to warm them, even the ripest berries are sour. Toma quickly loses interest and refuses to try any more. We come home with shin scratches and an empty bucket.
We don’t stop hiking though. In fact, we spend at least an hour or two a day walking through the stands of moss-covered cedars and Douglas firs, breathing in the super-oxygenated air. I love these forests and have never taken their primordial beauty for granted. Now I find myself in near worship — thanking them not just for scrubbing the air, and for the shade and the carbon sequestration they provide (“ecosystem services” in the lingo of business environmentalism), but for their sheer stamina. For not joining their burning brethren. For sticking with us, despite our failings. At least so far.
I have breathed this smoke before. Not these precise airborne particles, of course, but smoke from many of the same wildfires. And the odd thing is, I breathed it in some 570 miles east of here, in another province entirely.
I spent mid-July in Alberta, helping teach a course on environmental reporting at the Banff Centre for the Arts.
This time, too, the forecast had looked perfect: sunny, clear, warm. This time, too, the forecast was usurped from the first day by a smoke-cast, a haze that obscured the spectacular mountains in Banff National Park and provoked air quality warnings, headaches, and a catch in the throat. More #fakeweather.
Back in July, the winds were blowing east, which is why the Rockies were getting a face-full of smoke. In Calgary, Canada’s oil capital, the smoke was so thick that it obscured the city’s skyline of gleaming glass towers bearing the logos of Shell, BP, Suncor, and TransCanada. And the smoke didn’t stop there. It kept traveling eastward, reaching well into the center of the continent, to Saskatchewan and Manitoba and down to North Dakota and Montana (NASA released a striking picture of the 500-mile long plume).
Then, just as my family was heading to coastal British Columbia, the winds abruptly shifted and started blowing the plume westward, with the Rocky Mountains now acting like a giant tennis racket, lobbing the smoke to the Pacific.
Inhaling smoke originating from the same incinerated forests for the second time in one summer — never mind that I had traveled 600 miles and crossed a provincial boundary — was an eerie experience. I felt like the smudge was somehow stalking me, like the smoke monster on “Lost.”
World on Fire
Part of the head trip in all this is the sheer scale of the disaster, both temporally and spatially. Even devastating hurricanes like Harvey tend to concentrate their impacts in a contained geography. And the event (though not the aftermath) is relatively brief.
These fires, which rage for months, are of a different order entirely. There are the direct impacts of the fires. The huge swath of land charred. The tens of thousands of lives overturned by evacuation orders. The lost homes and farms and cattle. The industries — from tourism operators to sawmills — forced to close down.
And then there are the less direct impacts of all that wandering smoke. Over July and August, the smoke from this conflagration covered an area spanning roughly 700,000 square miles. That’s bigger than all of France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. All touched by this one fast-moving disaster.
And this is just one snapshot of a much larger season of fire. At summer’s end, large parts of the American West were on fire. The fire in Los Angeles was the largest ever recorded within city limits; a fire-related state of emergency was declared for every single county in Washington state. In Montana, a wildfire named the Lodgepole Complex burned some 425 square miles of territory, making it the third-largest blaze in the settled history of the region. This is part of a broader increase in both the numbers of fires and the months during which they burn: Since the 1970s, fire season in the United States has lengthened by 105 days, according to an analysis by Climate Central.
The area of Europe that has burned this fire season has been triple the average, and it’s not over yet. Central Portugal experienced the deadliest impacts: In June, more than 60 people died in a blaze near Pedrógão Grande. Hundreds of homes have burned in Siberia. During Chile’s summer months, the country battled the largest wildfire in its recorded history, and thousands of people were displaced. In June in South Africa, the same storm caused flooding in Cape Town and fanned the flames of unprecedented deadly wildfires in nearby towns. Even Greenland, that icy place, saw large and unusual wildfires this summer. Jason Box, a world-renowned climate scientist specializing in the Greenland ice sheet, pointed out that “temperatures in Greenland are probably higher [than they have been over] the last 800 years.”
Yes, It’s Climate Change
Warmer and drier weather is not the only factor at play. Another is the perennially hubristic attempt to re-engineer natural forces far more powerful than we are. Fire is a crucial part of the forest cycle: Left to their own devices, forests burn periodically, clearing the way for new growth and reducing the amount of highly flammable underbrush and old wood (“fuel” in firefighter parlance). Many indigenous cultures have long used fire as a key part of land care. But in North America, modern forest management has systematically supressed cyclical fires in order to protect profitable trees that were headed for sawmills, as well as out of fear that small fires could spread to inhabited areas (and there are more and more inhabited areas).
Without regular natural burns, forests are chock-full of fuel, provoking fires to burn out of control. And there’s a hell of a lot more fuel as a result of bark beetle infestations, which have left behind huge stands of dry and brittle dead trees. There is compelling evidence that the bark beetle epidemic has been exacerbated by climate change-related heat and drought.
Overlying it all is the uncomplicated fact that hotter, drier weather — directly linked to climate change — creates the optimal conditions for wildfires. Indeed, these forces have conspired to turn forests into perfectly laid campfires, with the dry earth acting like balled-up newspaper, the dead trees serving as kindling, and the added heat providing the match. Mike Flannigan, a University of Alberta wildfire expert, is blunt. “The increase in area burned in Canada is a direct result of human-caused climate change. Individual events get a little more tricky to connect, but the area burned has doubled in Canada since the 1970s as a result of warming temperatures.” And according to a 2010 study, fire occurrence in Canada is projected to increase by 75 percent by the end of the century.
Here’s the really alarming thing: 2017 was not even an El Niño year, the cyclical natural warming phenomenon that was commonly cited as a key factor in the huge fires that raged in Southern California and Northern Alberta last year, including the one that famously came close to completely burning down the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray.
With no El Niño to blame, some media outlets have been willing to drop the hedging. To quote Germany’s Deutsche Welle: “Climate change sets the world on fire.”
Fairy Tales and Feedback Loops
“Looks like snow is coming,” Toma declares solemnly, his face pressed up to the window and the white, thick air on the other side.
Ever since we left Alberta, his 5-year-old mind has been struggling to understand the smoke that has marked his summer. Trying to make sense of my chronic cough and his raging skin rash. Struggling, most of all, with the soundtrack of worried chatter among the grown-ups in his life.
His response goes through phases: Nightmares wake him up at night. He writes songs with lyrics like, “Why is everything going wrong?” There’s a lot of inappropriate laughter.
At first, he was excited by the idea of wildfires, confusing them with campfires and angling for s’mores. Then his grandfather explained that the sun had turned into that weird, glowing dot because the forest itself was on fire. He was stricken.
“What about the animals?”
We have developed techniques for controlling worry. They begin with taking deep breaths, and we do it several times a day. But it occurs to me that breathing extra amounts of this particular air is probably not great, especially for small lungs already prone to infection.
Avi and I don’t talk to Toma about climate change, which may seem strange given that I write books about it and Avi directs films about it, and we both spend most of our waking hours focused on the need for a transformative response to the crisis. What we do talk about is pollution, though on a scale he can understand. Like plastic, and why we have to pick it up and use less of it because it makes the animals sick. Or we look at the exhaust coming out of cars and trucks, and talk about how you can get power from the sun and the wind and store it in batteries. A little kid can grasp concepts like these and know exactly what should happen (better than plenty of adults). But the idea that the entire planet has a fever that could get so high that much of life on earth could be lost in the convulsions — that seems to me too great a burden to ask small children to carry.
This summer marks the end of his protection. It isn’t a decision I’m proud of, or one I even remember making. He just heard too many adults obsessing over the strange sky, and the real reasons behind the fires, and he finally put it all together.
At a playground in the haze, I meet a young mother who offers advice on how to reassure worried kids. She tells hers that forest fires are a positive part of the cycle of ecosystem renewal — the burning makes way for new growth, which feeds the bears and deer.
I nod, feeling like a failed mom. But I also know that she’s lying. It’s true that fire is a natural part of the life cycle, but the fires currently blotting out the sun in the Pacific Northwest are the opposite, they’re part of a planetary death spiral. Many are so hot and intransigent that they are leaving scorched earth behind. The rivers of bright red fire retardant being sprayed from planes are seeping into waterways, posing a threat to fish. And just as my son fears, animals are losing their forested homes.
The biggest danger, however, is the carbon being released as the forests burn. Three weeks after the smoke descended on the coast, we learn that the total annual greenhouse gas emissions for the province of British Columbia had tripled as a result of the fires, and it’s still going up.
This dramatic increase of emissions is part of what climate scientists mean when they warn about feedback loops: burning carbon leads to warmer temperatures and long periods without rain, which leads to more fires, which release more carbon into the atmosphere, which leads to even warmer and drier conditions, and even more fires.
Another such lethal feedback loop is playing out with Greenland’s wildfires. Fires produce black soot (also known as “black carbon”), which settles on ice sheets, turning the ice gray or black. Darkened ice absorbs more heat than reflective white ice, which makes the ice melt faster, which leads to sea level rise and the release of huge amounts of methane, which causes more warming and more fires, which in turn create more blackened ice and more melting.
So, no, I’m not going to tell Toma that the fires are a happy part of the cycle of life. We settle for half-truths and fudging to make the nightmare subside. “The animals know how to escape from the fires. They run to rivers and streams and other forests.”
We talk about how we need to plant more trees for the animals to come home to. It helps, a little.
A Wake Up Call – For Some
One of the regions hit hardest by the fires is a place I have visited often, the territory of the Secwepemc people, which encompasses a huge swath of land in British Columbia’s interior — much of it now on fire. The late Arthur Manuel, a former Secwepemc chief, was a dear friend and hosted me several times. So far in 2017, I have visited his territory twice: once to attend Manuel’s funeral and once for a meeting he had been organizing when heart failure took his life.
The gathering was in response to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to approve a $7.4-billion project that would nearly triple the capacity of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline, which carries high-carbon tar sands oil from Alberta through British Columbia. The expanded network of pipes would pass through dozens of waterways on Secwepemc land, and is forcefully opposed by many traditional landholders. Arthur believed the struggle has the potential to turn into “Standing Rock North.”
When the fires began this summer, Manuel’s friends and family wasted no time making the argument that building more fossil fuel infrastructure as the word burns is both absurd and reckless. A statement was issued by the Secwepemc Working Group on Indigenous Food Sovereignty opposing the pipeline expansion project and demanding that the existing, smaller pipeline be shut down immediately to reduce the risk of a catastrophic accident should fire and oil meet.
“We are in a critical state of emergency dealing with the impacts of climate change,” said Secwepemc teacher Dawn Morrison. “The health of our families and communities relies heavily on our ability to harvest wild salmon and access clean drinking water, both of which are at risk if the Kinder Morgan pipeline was ruptured or impacted by the fires.”
This is common sense: When oil and gas infrastructure finds itself in the bull’s-eye of the cumulative effects of burning so much fossil fuel (think of oil rigs battered by superstorms, or Houston underwater), we should all do what the Secwepmc did — treat the disaster as a wake-up call about the need to build a safer society, fast.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Talk About Oil
Our political and economic systems, however, are not built that way; indeed, they are built to actively override that kind of survival response. So Kinder Morgan doesn’t even bother answering the community’s concerns. What’s more, the company is gearing up to begin construction on the expansion this month, with the fires still raging.
Worse, in true shock doctrine form, some extractive industries are actively using the fiery state of emergency to get stuff done that was impossible during normal times. For instance, Taseko Mines has been fighting for years to build a highly contentious, open pit gold and copper mine in one of the parts of British Columbia hit hardest by the fires. Fierce opposition among the Tsilhqot’in First Nation has so far successfully fended off the toxic project, resulting in several key regulatory victories.
But this July, with several of the impacted Tsilhqot’in communities under evacuation order or holding their ground to fight the fires themselves, the outgoing British Columbia government — notorious as a “wild west” of political payola — did something extraordinary. In its last week in office after suffering a humiliating election defeat, the government handed Taseko a raft of permits to move ahead with exploration. “It defies compassion that while our people are fighting for our homes and lives, B.C. issues permits that will destroy more of our land beyond repair,” said Russell Myers Ross, a Tsilhqot’in chief. A representative of the outgoing government responded: “I appreciate this may come at a difficult time for you given the wildfire situation affecting some of your communities.”
Despite the stresses the fires have placed on their people, the Tsilhqot’in are fighting the move in court, and the company has already been forced to suspend its drilling plans in the face of legal troubles. There is also a new provincial government, created through an unprecedented agreement between the center-left New Democratic Party and the Greens. In a rare piece of good climate news, it is actively challenging the legality of the Kinder Morgan pipeline project on several fronts.
Yet anyone holding out hope that the fires might jolt Trudeau into serious climate action has been gravely disappointed. Canada’s prime minister loves being photographed frolicking in British Columbia’s spectacular wilderness (preferably shirtless), and his wife Sophie Grégoire recently unleashed a hurricane of emojis by posting a picture of herself surfing off Vancouver island (it was during the fires and the sky looked hazy).
But for all his gushing about British Columbia’s forests and coastal waters, Trudeau is slamming his foot on the accelerator when it comes to pipelines and tar sands expansion. “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and just leave them there,” he told a cheering crowd of oil and gas executives in Houston last March. He hasn’t budged since. Never mind that Houston has since flooded and a third of his country is on fire. This month, one of his top ministers said of the Kinder Morgan pipeline approval: “Nothing that’s happened since then has changed our mind that this is a good decision.” Trudeau is on fossil fuel autopilot and nothing, it seems, will make him swerve.
Then there is President Donald Trump, whose climate crimes are too comprehensive and too layered to delineate here. It does seem worth mentioning, however, that he chose this summer of floods and fires to disband the federal advisory panel assessing the impacts of climate change on the U.S. and to greenlight Arctic drilling in the Beaufort Sea.
The Guy Who Lost Two Houses
It’s not just politicians who are bound and determined not to learn from nature’s blaring messages.
In the midst of British Columbia’s fire emergency, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation struck human-interest gold: They found a man, Jason Schurman, whose log home burned down in British Columbia — and who also lost a home in the Fort McMurray fires one year earlier. Two homes, two fires, same guy. The CBC ran photos of his charred properties – separated by 800 miles — side by side. In both cases, only the fireplace and chimney remain.
There’s a lot of moving detail in the story about the human wreckage these disasters leave behind: the endless paperwork, traumatic memories, and family stress. But there is no mention of climate change. This is notable because Schurman works as a site supervisor in the Alberta tar sands. Still, the reporter did not ask Schurman if losing two homes and nearly losing his son raised any questions for him about the industry in which he works (one of the only sectors in Canada or the U.S. still paying salaries that afford middle-class lives). Instead, the tale of a man “twice burned” played as a quirky human-interest story, alongside one about a firefighter who got married amid the flames.
When Vice picked up the irresistible story, the reporter did raise climate change with Schurman, which he acknowledged could be one of the factors contributing to these infernos. But, in very Vice-like fashion, the bulk of the article focused on how the oil worker is coping with his losses through baroque body art: “The constant pain of a tattoo also takes your mind completely off … losing everything I own.”
You Get Used to It
Aren’t we all guilty, in one way or another, of sleepwalking toward the apocalypse? The soft-focus quality the smoke casts over life here seems to make this collective denial more acute. Here in British Columbia in August, we all look like sleepwalkers, stumbling around doing our work and errands, having vacations in a thick cloud of smoke, pretending we don’t hear the alarm clanging in the background.
Smoke, after all, is not fire. It’s not a flood. It doesn’t command your immediate attention or force you to flee. You can live with it, if less well. You get used to it.
And that’s what we do.
We paddleboard in the smoke and act like it’s mist. We bring beers and ciders to the beach and remark that, on the upside, you barely need sunscreen at all.
Sitting on the beach under that fake, milky sky, I suddenly flash to those images of families sunning themselves on oil-soaked beaches in the midst of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. And it hits me: They are us. Refusing to let a wildfire interfere with our family vacation.
During disasters, you hear a lot of praise for human resilience. And we are a remarkably resilient species. But that’s not always good. It seems we can get used to almost anything, even the steady annihilation of our own habitat.
A Window to a Hacked Planet
The piece focuses on a method often referred to as solar radiation management, which would see sulfur dioxide sprayed into the stratosphere to create a barrier between the Earth and the sun, forcibly lowering temperatures. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the piece notes, means more governments, including China, are taking sun-dimming seriously.
The first mention of possible risks comes in paragraph 20 of the Atlantic piece, where it quotes a climate scientist saying that hacking the planet “could induce droughts or floods or things like that.” Yeah, that would be a bummer. In fact, as I’ve written elsewhere, there is a large cache of peer-reviewed research showing that this form of geoengineering could interfere with the monsoons in Asia and Africa, thus threatening the food and water supply for billions of people.
Now imagine a scenario in which men, like Trump, Narendra Modi, and Kim Jong-un, were empowered to deploy these climate-altering technologies like unconventional weapons, hurtling us into an era of undeclared weather wars in which one country sacrifices the precipitation of another in order to save its crops, and the other retaliates by unleashing mega-floods.
Some would-be planet hackers insist these worst-case risks can be managed. All concede to lesser downsides, however. Spraying sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere would almost certainly create a permanent milky-white haze, making clear blue skies a thing of the past for the entire planet. The haze might well prevent astronomers from seeing the stars and planets clearly, and weaker sunlight could reduce the capacity of solar power generators to produce energy.
When you think about this in the abstract, it can seem like a small price to pay to buy “some more time to get our act together” on pollution control, as the Atlantic article puts it. But it is something else entirely to read about the prospect of deliberately dimming the sky under a sky that is already artificially dimmed with omnipresent smoke casting a literal pall over daily life.
Losing the sky is no small thing. We take it for granted that even in the most crowded of cities, we can look up and see the world beyond our reach — yes, there are planes and satellites, but beyond that is the heavens, the unknown, the ultimate “out there.” In almost every corner of the Pacific Northwest this August, when we gazed up at the sky, we didn’t see any of that expanse. We just saw ourselves, more detritus of our own broken system. In the blanket of smoke, we had a ceiling, not a sky — and to me, it felt like a suffocating lid placed over possibility itself.
I hear myself suggesting to Avi that we should just drive north until we hit clean air. And then I remember that if we did, we’d be face to face with rapidly melting permafrost. We stay put.
The Wind Changes
Almost two full weeks into the smoke-out, something shifts. I hear it first, and then I see branches moving: wind. A sudden temperature drop. And by noon, actual patches of blue, separated by clouds. I had forgotten how distinct they are from haze — higher for starters and with all kinds of delicate shapes and movement.
The smoke hasn’t cleared entirely, but enough of it has blown away to suddenly make the world look sharp. Crisp. You know that elation when a long fever finally breaks? I feel like that.
The next day brings rain; not a lot, but enough to hope for some relief for the 2,400 exhausted and overworked firefighters. My allergies clear up, and Toma starts sleeping through the night again.
But the news from the interior is disastrous. The same wind that finally pried loose the blanket of smoke on the coast has been fanning the flames at the epicenter of the fires. The stillness that trapped the smoke here for so long turns out to have been the only bright spot for the fire brigades. Now that’s over, and there’s not nearly enough rain.
Over the next week, British Columbia blazes through the record books. By mid-August, the fires break the provincial record for the most land burned in one year: 3,453 square miles. Within days, several different fires combine forces to create the largest single fire in British Columbia’s history.
When the solar eclipse arrives, I feel nothing but dread. We have clear skies, a near-perfect viewing location, and I know, in theory, that what is about to happen is a natural wonder. But I’m just not ready to say goodbye to the sun again, even for a few minutes. We only just got it back.
I spend the eclipse sitting outside alone, staring at the horizon, clinging to the dying light. A week after, neo-Nazis marched with torches in Charlottesville, Virginia, and with so much of the world engulfed in actual infernos, this sudden dimming of our world just feels too damn literal.
The Global Fire Alarm System Is Broken
Over Labor Day weekend, more than 160 fires are still burning in British Columbia. Extremely hot, dry, and windy weather has conspired to create the conditions for a slew of large, new wildfires to ignite and for old ones to expand exponentially. Authorities announce new evacuations daily; at last count, some 60,000 displaced people had registered as evacuees with Red Cross over the course of the summer. The state of emergency has been extended for the fourth time.
But even in Canada, it’s impossible for this news to compete with the devastating fallout out from Hurricane Harvey; the scores dead and millions impacted by record flooding in South Asia and Nigeria; and now the fury of Hurricane Irma. Then there are the headline-grabbing blazes in Los Angeles, the state of emergency in Washington state, and new evacuations ordered, from Glacier National Park to northern Manitoba. A satellite image from early September shows the entire length of the continent blanketed in smoke, #fakeweather from the Pacific to the storm-churning Atlantic.
I can barely keep track of the nonstop convulsions, and it’s my job to do so. I do know this: Our collective house is on fire, with every alarm going off simultaneously, clanging desperately for our attention. Will we keep stumbling and wheezing through the low light, acting as if the emergency is not already upon us? Or will the warnings be enough to force many more of us to listen? To respond like the Secwepemc, who, in a cloud of smoke, are nonetheless putting their bodies on the line to stop an oil pipeline from being built on their fire-scarred land?
Those are the questions still hanging in the air at the end of this summer of smoke.
Research: Sharon J. Riley