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Deadly Western Canada Heat Wave a ‘Wake Up Call’ for Climate Action

As the town of Lytton and the Lytton First Nation mourn all they lost to last week’s British Columbia inferno, climate experts and health professionals warn that further tragedies await in the absence of an “all hands on deck” approach to fighting the climate crisis.

Fifteen minutes was all it took for wildfire to completely engulf the hamlet of Lytton on July 1, killing at least two and sending more than a thousand fleeing with only the clothes on their backs, writes CBC News. At last report, a full 90% of the town was destroyed, with the two dead now confirmed and several more people unaccounted for, in the hamlet itself and in the neighbouring Lytton First Nation. 

Scott Hildebrand, chief administrative officer with the Thompson-Nicola Regional District, told CBC there have been reports that “a [CN Rail] train may have sparked the blaze,” though these are as yet unconfirmed.

Kamloops This Week reports that the two dead are Janette and Mike Chapman, both in their 60s. The couple died in the yard of their Lytton home despite their son’s frantic effort to secure last-minute safety for them in a recently dug septic trench. Believing the trench was too small to fit three, Jeffrey Chapman found meagre shelter on nearby railway tracks, where he spent 45 terrifying minutes face down, covering his head against the searing heat. The day after the fire, he spoke hollow-eyed to media about the guilt he feels for not being able to save his parents, and of the horror of watching them die when a power line fell on them. 

“We were just trying to save what we worked our whole lives for,” he told CBC. “We were just trying to save what we worked for to have. It might not have been the best, but it was home.” 

Lytton First Nation, too, is grappling with tremendous “devastation and loss,” reports the Victoria Times Colonist. “It’s incomprehensible, people are so anxious and worried about what comes next for them,” said Deputy Chief John Haugen.

Some members of the First Nation are also speaking out against the B.C. government’s failure to communicate quickly and clearly with their community. “In the first 14 hours, we were alone,” Matt Pasco, chair of the regional Nlaka’pamux Nation Tribal Council, told The Toronto Star. He said the seeming radio silence contributed to a chaotic evacuation effort, with families separated and pets and essential items like medicine left behind. 

While Pasco and his people were left abandoned to their own efforts at escape for over a day, he added, the provincial Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development had checked in with him earlier in the week to see how his cattle were weathering the extreme temperatures. 

“They phoned me as a rancher to make sure my cattle were all right before I ever got any response from the province …about the health and well-being of our people,” he told the Star.

As of July 2, firefighters in B.C. were “battling 137 active blazes, the largest one measuring 100 hectares,” writes Bloomberg. 

“The fires have consumed 79,000 hectares so far, a figure that’s expected to rise to 100,000 hectares by the end of the weekend, prompting the Pacific Coast province to request help, including planes, from the federal government and military.” 

Cliff Chapman, director of provincial operations for the B.C. Wildfire Service, told Bloomberg the current fire season is “not comparable” to any previous one. “The fires have started about a week earlier than 2017, the most devastating year on record for the province,” he said. “It’s appearing to look like a long season ahead.”

A day before Lytton was incinerated, temperatures in the hamlet had hit 49.6°C, the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada. That a Canadian town could become one of the hottest places on earth—by June, no less—prompted veteran meteorologist and climate activist Eric Holthaus to write in The Guardian that the weather event “was a perfect storm long in the making.” 

While the entire planet is overheating and fast, courtesy of humanity’s ongoing and undeniably fatal romance with fossil fuels, the mountains are overheating especially quickly, Holthaus explains. “A 2015 study found that mountainous areas above 2,000 metres are warming about 75% faster than places at lower elevations,” he says. “Warmer mountains along with the mega-drought now plaguing western North America—the most widespread severe drought on record—contributed to a high pressure ‘heat dome’ that has been self-reinforcing this week to create truly extreme conditions along the Pacific coast.” 

The “most shocking part,” he adds, is that it only took 2.0°F of global warming over 150 years of burning fossil fuels to make this happen. “On our current path, we’re heading for another three to five degrees of warming in half that time.”

But, Holthaus notes, while the hour grows late, it is not yet too late. “Indigenous resistance to an economy built on extraction needs to be scaled up and combined with climate reparations to the people and places who are most affected,” he writes. “We are in a climate emergency. We can’t wait for other people, we’ve got to do this ourselves. We were born at just the right moment to help change everything.”

Beyond the deaths and destruction in Lytton, the heat dome itself has so far killed hundreds in British Columbia alone—and it is still moving eastward. Citing the B.C. Coroners Service, Bloomberg reports that the provincial death rate “tripled during the week of hot weather: there were 719 sudden deaths between June 25 to July 1.”

Reporting on just a few of the myriad demands of the heat wave, The Washington Post writes of cherry growers in the Pacific Northwest “rushing to harvest their crop before it shrivels in the sun—but stopping their picking at lunchtime to avoid the baking heat.” And the full agricultural effects of the heat dome “may not yet be fully visible,” the news outlet warns. In Oregon and Washington, private air conditioning is thin on the ground, and “hospitals are unused to handling symptoms of extreme heat exposure.” 

Looking to (not far) future impacts in the east, the Post notes that “the dry docks in Virginia’s Hampton Roads were built for a lower sea level, and the fisheries in Maine rely on water temperatures remaining within a certain range.” 

Human society, the Post notes, “has developed within a narrow temperature band.” Reporting on the sorrowful aftermath of the incineration of Lytton, The Star offers insight from wildfire and climate experts on what the Canada Day tragedy tells us about the future of wildfire in the West. 

“This is exactly the kind of scenario that has been predicted by climate models for decades,” said Ken Lertzman, professor emeritus of forest ecology and management at Simon Fraser University. Severe wildfires like those happening this season will breed the conditions for yet more fires, he explained, as burning forests release additional carbon and further hasten global heating. 

Proof of such worsening conditions can be found in the fact that fire seasons are getting longer—in dry jurisdictions like Alberta, for example, they are starting in early March. Noting that the amount of territory burned by wildfire in Canada has doubled over the past 50 years, Lertzman drew a clear line between that expansion and the galloping progress of the climate crisis. 

“This is exactly the kind of scenario that has been predicted by climate models for decades,” he said. “We’re going to see more of this type of thing.”

So far, Lertzman the response has stressed adaptation, such as planting more fire-resistant trees like broadleaf species in place of highly flammable conifers. “We have a lot of tough choices that we’re going to have to face in terms of the relative costs of protection of communities [that] are in place, at rebuilding communities, of planning communities that will be more resilient to fire,” he said.

The “scary” necessity in the immediate term, added Lertzman, is to “learn to live with fire.” Describing such an effort as “a multi-prong, multi-faceted problem” with no “quick fix” solution, he said Indigenous knowledge and land management has much to teach. The Star notes that First Nations used fire successfully “for thousands of years before being removed from their lands.” 

CBC told a similar story in 2017.

The Globe and Mail, meanwhile, asks if Western Canada’s deadly heat wave will finally be “a wake-up call” for the country. 

“Wildfires are burning, power grids are failing, transit systems are melting, and people are dying,” the Globe writes. The paper points to a recent report in the prestigious UK medical journal, The Lancet, warning that climate change poses “the biggest threat to human health in the 21st century,” and to predictions by the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices that heat-related hospitalizations will increase 20% or more by mid-century.

“It’s normal for extreme weather events like this to be a trigger for people to take a look at the world, their place in it, and what climate change means for their children,” said Yellowknife, NWT emergency physician Dr. Courtney Howard, past president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. “You can’t just take a yoga breath and hope for the best. You have to take action. That’s where we’re at now.”

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[…] an early summer heat dome shattered temperature records and tripled the sudden-death rate in British Columbia, the […]