With nearly 600 fires raging across British Columbia, communities are on evacuation alert, many are choking on smoke, and especially northern ones are saying the province’s recently-announced state of emergency comes very late in the day.
Since the Horgan government declared a province-wide state of emergency last week, nearly 40 new blazes have erupted, “mostly sparked by lightning,” CBC reports.
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Another CBC update notes that many B.C. communities are on evacuation alert, including the East Kootenays town of Kimberley, population 4,500. “Officials are also watching the Shovel Lake fire, a blaze seven times the size of the city of Vancouver, which has prompted evacuation orders or alerts from Fraser Lake all the way north to Fort St. James in north-central B.C.”
The widespread plume of smoke from the fires showed up on NASA satellite imagery last week, the national broadcaster notes. It’s so thick in places that it blocks out the sun. Over the past few days, sunrise in Prince George has come and gone, leaving residents in darkness and streetlights still on at 9:00 AM. And any clearing of the skies will be a mixed blessing, “as lifting smoke means temperatures will climb and humidity will drop,” leading to increased fire activity, noted one evacuation alert update.
Where the smoke lingers, air quality is dire, with both Quesnel and Williams Lake currently categorized as “high risk,” according to Environment Canada’s Air Quality Index. The entire Okanagan region, Prince George, and Castlegar in the West Kootenays have been assessed as “moderate risk,” CBC reported last Thursday. Only the far north, the west coast, and Vancouver Island are more or less free of smoke.
The provincial capital, Victoria, is feeling another kind of heat, in the form of sharp criticisms of the government response to the 2018 wildfire season, with residents of communities like Burns Lake saying the state of emergency “is coming too late” for them. In a recent interview with CBC’s The Early Edition, Forests Minister Doug Donaldson was asked to address concerns from residents who “feel the government hasn’t been listening to them this summer.”
Donaldson responded that while the wildfire crisis has understandably created “heightened tension,” affected communities “are not forgotten, and the resources are there.” Asked about the claim by Bill Miller, chair of the Bulkley-Nechako Regional District, that “he’d been asking for more help for weeks and sometimes felt like he was being ignored,” Donaldson replied that “sometimes when people observe not a lot of action on a fire from an air support perspective, for instance, it’s due to decisions operationally that are being made for the safety of crews.”
But “many are calling for more to be done to better manage wildfire seasons in the future,” CBC states.
Meanwhile, new research at the University of Alberta is linking the intensity of the wildfire season back to the climate crisis, Radio Canada reports. “The number of fires across Canada has doubled since 1970,” and that escalation can only be attributed to anthropogenic climate change, said the university’s Mike Flannigan, whose research on wildfires and the boreal forest dates back 30 years.
“What is at least as worrying is that experts are now saying the fires themselves are part of a feedback loop,” CBC states. “The fires are pumping thousands of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, which increases heat absorption and global warming, which in turn changes the climate.”
And while the forests of B.C. burn, to the detriment of all who depend on them, another critical resource is being literally given away. Activist organization SumofUs is currently pressuring the Horgan government to deliver on its election promise to review its water rates, which currently permit the sale of the province’s badly-needed freshwater resources—to bottlers like Nestlé, and to hydrofracking companies—for just $2.25 per million litres.