Season of Smoke

In a Summer of Wildfires and Hurricanes, My Son Asks “Why Is Everything Going Wrong?”

- Naomi Klein

The 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.

#FakeWeather

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.

Inland Infernos

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.

Missing Blue

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 blazethreatened part of the coast about 20 minutes from here, taking the life of a localman 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.

 

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