Travelling through the mountains of B.C. and Alberta by motorcycle in July was a smoky immersion into the effects of our warming planet as wildfires raged all around. A blue fog filled the valleys, so thick in places you could taste it, while plumes of smoke rose from the hillsides.
Fire season is a regular occurrence in North America. It is a natural part of the forest ecosystem where soils are rejuvenated and some tree species, such as jack pine and lodgepole pine, need the stimulus of fire to open up their seeds and begin new growth.
According to the Centre for Climate Change and Solutions, drier conditions and warmer temperatures caused by human activity have doubled the number of large fires in the western U.S. from 1984 to 2021.
This year, the B.C. wildfire season is now the third most destructive fire season on record in the province. Many of the fires burning farther south than typical years, closer to populated areas which made them more visible and more destructive to property.
Evacuation orders were common throughout the region as fire fighters struggled to contain the blazes from the ground and the air. For the people living in those areas, it was a scary summer of uncertainty.
I experienced a taste of that uncertainty when I became an evacuee.
I had stopped in a motel in the small village of Fauquier in the Kootenay region of southeastern B.C. It was backed by a mountain ridge with smoke rising above, painting the late afternoon sky a gloomy orange. Fire crews occupied rooms on either side of me, helicopters carrying water buckets passed overhead, while the owner of the motel sprayed the roof with water to prevent glowing cinders in the air from igniting the building.
At around 10 p.m., the firemen knocked on doors telling everyone the area was to be evacuated NOW. "You can stay if you like, but we will need to know your next of kin," said one of them. I chose to leave. We were instructed to head to a community centre in the next town of Nakusp, about 50 kilometres up the road.
Driving through the night, smoke and ash particles filled my headlight beam like snowflakes in winter, burning my eyes and filling my lungs. I thought about similar fires burning in California and the incineration of so much of Australia that climate change attribution scientists calculated was 30 per cent more likely in 2019-2020 than it was in 1900 due to human-induced climate change.
The community centre in Nakusp had a welcome desk where people registered as evacuees and were helped to find accommodation for the night. The mayor of the town and fire chief were both there to provide information and support.
As a traveller, I was fortunate to be self contained and mobile, but as I watched people wander in, some holding their children still in pyjamas, I saw a look of shock on their faces, the realization that their homes and all their possessions may not be there when they return. Those were the faces of environmental refugees, forced from their homes by fire, floods, hurricanes or drought. It is a sight becoming more common in our changing world.
For decades, scientists have been warning about the dangers of climate change, but it has usually been somewhere off in the future or a distant place such as the Arctic. Now those predictions are literally on the faces of people in B.C., California, New Orleans, New York and other regions around the planet.
The silver lining in this dark cloud is the fact that the technology to decarbonize our atmosphere already exists. Zero emission vehicles, solar, wind, geothermal, and other clean energy generation, along with energy storage have been around for decades with many of them becoming cheaper every year.
The transition away from fossil fuels will involve not only technology, but social, economic and political decisions to employ them more fully on both large and smaller scales in a sustainable way. We have the ability to turn the face of climate change from fearful faces into secure smiles, but whether or not our government — and others around the world — take the necessary steps to ward off the worst effects of climate change remains to be seen.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
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