This past week has been a record breaker for B.C.’s Sunshine Coast. People started to notice what at first was euphemistically called ‘haze’ on Tuesday. By Friday the view south from Skelhp, roughly two- thirds up the coast, was a series of increasingly brown clouds that completely hid Texada Island, and covered half of Nelson Island’s towering bulk, from the top down. It appeared as if there were two sources of inflow; south-east from Metro Vancouver via the Fraser Valley and north- north- east from Whistler, over the Coast Range.
At first, we didn’t worry too much about closing the windows in the house because the temperatures were in the 25- to 28-degree C range and a welcome breeze was needed. But as the smoke concentrated and became browner, it began to carry a burnt wood smell right into the house. Windows and doors were shut. There was some variance in intensity with local winds, and Thursday actually began to see some improvement overall, but overnight Friday the damn stuff came roiling back in from the NE.
At first the local news focussed on the impact of smoke on Metro-Vancouver’s NE and NW quadrants, informing us that Burnaby’s air quality was now worse than Beijing’s. We also continued to hear reports of Kamloops achieving a ghastly 48 on a 10-point scale for air quality. It was difficult to get equivalent information for the central coast, but by comparing photographs posted on Facebook and Instagram, it began to look as if we all had the same problem.
I found myself starting to panic, especially after a few puffs from my asthma Ventolin inhaler – a practice I follow in greatly polluted cities I should not visit due to high volume diesel exhaust from buses and trucks. Suddenly the air quality in Skelhp was mimicking Mumbai and Cairo. The steroids in the Ventolin always increase my nervous reactions, and I started to wonder how we would all survive a month of smoke. After all, B.C.’s wildfire season theoretically lasts well into September.
I wondered if we could escape by taking our boat up the coast, or perhaps over to the west coast of Vancouver Island. Could we take the Salish Orca to Comox and book a Westjet flight to Calgary? Could we drive up Island and escape to Bella Bella or even Haida Gwaii by ferry? What would be the best plan of exit? Or was it best just to sit tight like the Weather Advisory Notice counselled, at home, indoors, without any strenuous form of exercise? “Who really knows?” I found myself thinking. Wildfire smoke on this scale and of this duration has never happened in my lifetime.
I also began to wonder how you would really know when it was time to go? Prolonged exposure would certainly not be good for infants, the elderly, and those with compromised hearts and lungs. This much we knew from the government’s messaging. And yet, the underpinning to their guidance was a heavy dose of sit- tight, don’t panic, and it will all eventually get better. Rationally I know this is the case. But for those of febrile mind, perhaps fed by four double puffs per day of Ventolin, the image of a frog sitting in a saucepan of gradually warming water ineffably comes to mind.
By Sunday, the weather App on my iPhone was predicting rain for this week. Surely that should put an end to this nonsense? Well perhaps. The weather can always change, and in my experience it pays not to bank on the synopsis for weather that is still a week to materialize. But I am sure at least most of us can wait a week.
Big picture, my mind is replaying all those family drives we’ve taken through the millions of hectares of Spruce budworm beetle killed forests in the B.C. interior. I’ve also thought about the hundreds of “Only you can prevent forest fires!” signs I’ve pointed out to our kids over past decades. Forestry academics are now patiently explaining how 70 years of Smokey, and aggressive wildfire suppression efforts have filled the forests with a tinder load just waiting to blow. Don’t even get me started on climate change.
But I do have a sense that this summer’s smoke may quickly become the new normal if we don’t get serious about our common future.
Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum and the Bill Reid Gallery. Mike has chaired the national boards of Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. In 2004, he became a Member of the Order of Canada.