Old-timers in the Kootenays sometimes refer to June as “Juneuary,” a month with cooler, wetter weather. But June 2021 definitely didn’t resemble anything they would have seen before. It was record-shatteringly hot.
Just as, earlier this year, the jetstream had parked a cold weather system over Texas, it contorted to form a stagnant heat dome that baked much of western North America.
For several days, temperatures across BC reached into the 40s (Celsius) before settling into weeks of 30-degree temperatures, with no rain. Perhaps nice for the beach, but not so good for temperate rainforests.
On July 9th, lightning struck a peak east of Winlaw and started a fire. It quickly grew out of control into a “Fire of Note” and began spreading to the backcountry behind us.
An evacuation alert was issued on July 21st. We raced to remove fuels (both gasoline and dry foliage), set up sprinklers, and collect essentials. Groundworks crews, which had finally mobilized just a week earlier, packed up and rolled out. Safety crews visited every property in the alert area to ensure that everyone was accounted for and was aware of the possibility of an evacuation order. Meanwhile, overhead, we could actually feel the drops falling from the water buckets under a constant cavalcade of helicopters. It was surreal.
The winds picked up that night and the alert was upgraded to an order, blocking us from our new property and kicking off a few smoky weeks of intense worry. The fire was once again upgraded, but this time to an “Interface Fire”, indicating structures (homes) were threatened. At one point, Big Calm was just a few hundred metres from going up in flames.
Fortunately, the persistent efforts of BC Wildfire Service crews, with ground support from the region’s forestry service, Sifco, and others, held the fire from jumping the ridge and into the Valley. The order was downgraded 12 days later and the alert rescinded on August 18th, following some much needed rain.
We moved to BC knowing that wildfire is an annual risk. Though Big Calm already has extensive fire breaks, we had consulted experts early on about further firesmarting the property. We knew that, at some point in the future, our region could be affected by fire–we just didn’t expect it to be so soon. We mourn for the loss of forest and the wildlife it sustained.
But, a silver lining can be found: the fire has effectively added an impressive 6000 hectare fire break around us, which will provide a buffer for many years ahead (and perhaps some morel mushrooms next year).
We moved here to be closer to nature. It’s been a true joy to experience more fully the comings and goings of the seasons…
The squirrels, the bears, the flowers, the trees, the birds, the bees, the worms, the weeds… everything in its time.
But it’s also been disconcerting to experience a heatwave that breaks records by double digits; to see robins standing over, rather than sitting their eggs; and to see an inland temperate rainforest thirsting for water. Even coastal Vancouver went 46 days without rain.
The effects of the global climate emergency are becoming more evident, everywhere. Every part of the world, both urban and rural areas, will experience the impact, whether it’s ice storms, floods, hurricanes, droughts, or wildfires. There is no safe haven.
So what are we to do? We choose to focus on what we can do at Big Calm – and that’s empowering. Ongoing fireproofing, installing an emergency water tank, and planting fire-resistant plants and trees. But we have a vision that goes far beyond that: a community whose strength is greater than that of each individual combined, so it’s better able to withstand whatever shocks the future holds.
And we saw that kind of cooperation last month: the community opened a resiliency centre for those affected by the fire, so all their needs were provided for. In addition to the designated intake centres set up throughout the region, people offered their spare bedrooms and RVs as a place for evacuees to stay. The community hosted a large BBQ for the firefighters as a gesture of gratitude.
We learned a lot from this experience: being prepared is not only wise, it’s empowering, and the cooperation of a community is integral to its resilience. And, while we cannot control the climate, we can find comfort and meaning in collectively caring for our own little piece of this fragile planet.
Photo: Jon Miller