The wildfire diaries
As the climate warms, the deep scars of wildfires endure
With massive wildfires blazing in many parts of the world, TV screens, laptops and phones are have been glowing red with images from the fire lines, from inside the arctic circle in Sweden to the highlands of Cambodia. But what happens after the flames die down? And once the TV and fire crews move elsewhere?
The impacts of wildfires can endure for decades and sometimes, those impacts are surprising and irreversible. This is part of the story that is less often told. But it’s a critical piece of the puzzle because wildfires are likely to be more frequent and severe in the years to come due to a variety of factors related to climate change.
The lost cabin
A native elder returns to a remote hunting and fishing cabin to see if it has survived the devastating Elephant Hill fire of 2017. Along the way, he wonders aloud whether the cabin still stands and whether the traditional Skeetchestn way of life will survive climate change’s latest blows.
As we pull out of the parking lot, the man at the wheel of the 4×4, Terry Deneault, explains we’ll have to take a long detour to get to our destination. The country road we were planning to take had been washed out the night before. “There’s mud all over the place,” Deneault tells me. “So for safety, we’re going the long way.”
After the fires in 2017 in this central region of British Columbia, Canada, Deneault says, mudslides began rolling down the mountains all over the territory. As the charred hillsides can no longer absorb rainfall and the soil is not held in place by living root systems, water and earth often come tumbling down, taking out roads, bridges, fences and sometimes even cars. The slides, he adds, can hit at any time.
“These washouts come down really fast now,” he says. “You never used to see this. The rain right now is what we are afraid of.”
Deneault is known as a ‘cultural knowledge-keeper’ for the Skeetchestn Indian Band and as we wind our way upwards, it becomes clear why. He tells stories of growing up in a remote mountain camp with his grandfather where he learned how to hunt, fish and gather plants in the traditional way. Some are funny, some are sad. He talks about being taken away to a residential school as a boy, then returning as young man and spending all of his time working to keep the traditional way of life alive. With the pressures of the modern world, development and now these fires and mudslides, it’s not an easy job.
‘The fire has changed everything’
“The place I’m taking you to, is one of the lower-elevation places that is plentiful with everything that we need,” says Deneault. “But because of the mudslides, we have to go way around to get to our mountain,” he says, adding that getting to hunting and gathering grounds normally takes one hour. Now it can take three times that. “This fire has literally changed everything. It’s had a deep impact on our culture.
“The Elephant Hill fire burned 75 per cent of the territory that I’m taking you to,” he continues. “And this year, the Alley Fire literally wiped us out up there. So now what do we do? How do we feed ourselves traditionally? Where do we go to find the berries, the plants, the roots to put the medicines in our body that keep us going?”
The wildlife is also suffering as there are no saplings or clover for the moose, deer and other large animals to eat. “We’re having reports of starving moose because they survive on the twigs [of young saplings] and clover. Now, it’s all gone.”
Until the fires, almost everyone in this community of 250 people relied on the land for a significant portion of their sustenance. After the fires, many subsist on imported food.
“Unfortunately, we have to rely on the system now,” says Deneault, who as knowledge-keeper runs numerous activities to keep traditional ceremonies, language, music and food gathering alive. “I was bringing back the hunting camps, I was bringing back the fishing camps. I was bringing back the teachings for our children so they could go hunt and gather whatever they needed for the winter. So all this has really changed us.”
‘We are not poor’
Still, Deneault says the Skeetchestn have what it takes to survive. “People look at us and think, ‘Oh, you poor Indians’,” he says, his soft-spoken tone rising in volume. “We are not poor. We are a thriving culture. We know everything about this land. We live off it. We’ll never be poor. During the hard 1930s, the great depression, our elders tell us they didn’t even know it was happening.”
In the wake of the fire, the band mobilized to support their members. They ran their own food drive with traditional foods and the Canadian Red Cross Society came in soon after with regular deliveries of food and firewood. “The Red Cross has given us various things — truckloads of fruit, chickens, turkeys, meat — and we are totally thankful. I want to let them know how grateful we are for that. It’s hard for a hunter and gatherer to accept this but we have to. We have no choice. “I also have to thank the grocery stores for being there when we needed them because of the fire and the evacuation. I have three gardens in which I grow what I need for the winter. But after the fire, I couldn’t eat any of it.”As we drive further into the burn zone, we are surrounded by the blackened skeletons of trees.
“Right now, looking at this, I could cry in front of you. It hurts me that much,” says Deneault. “This is Loon Lake. This was a traditional fishing spot. But that’s all gone now. This is another lake affected by the fire. The people here were devastated. Many homes were burnt.”
The last straw?
The problem, says Deneault, is that the fires came on top of other pressures on the traditional way of life. “In the old days, in my era, you could go up in the old reserve, you had gunny sacks full of dried things. We had hanging and drying racks for berries, medicine, meat — we had plenty of food to pull us through the winter; no problem. But you don’t see as much of that today now. Now we have all the big stores that a lot of our people go to and get that processed food.”
Meanwhile, the construction of new roads, housing developments and changes in seasonal fish runs due to a warming climate were already putting pressure on their ability to live off the land. “The effects of climate change have been hurting the river systems,” Deneault says. “The rivers are lower, slower and warmer, and salmon are coming up in bad shape because all the run-off causes diseases.”
Other changes affected the forest. As the summers got warmer, new infestations of insects killed off thousands of trees. “That’s why the Elephant Hill fire spread so fast — the forest was red from where bugs had killed everything. Everything left was bone dry; there was lots of fuel for the fire to go through non-stop.” This is one reason many here fear that the worst is yet to come. “If another fire sparks up, it’ll be even more devastating; trunks are all dried out now.”
‘What does is mean?’
Finally, after about two hours of driving, Deneault pulls the pick-up on to a grassy area. We get out and walk to the cabin. “This is one of the most important areas for us as hunters and gatherers,” he says as we march through the grass.
A few yards on, he stops. “Oh, my god. My cabin’s gone.
“We had a hunting and fishing cabin right here,” he says, standing by the only remaining remnants, a twisted metal structure. “These are drying racks for fish, moose and deer. This is where we did a lot of work. It was a beautiful cabin. There’s nothing left of it.”
He takes me to a small creek where fisherfolk used to pull out fish. “It’s sad to see this.” But then he spots a sign of hope: a moose track in the grassy bank. “Good to see that moose track. Looks like they came in and ate stuff growing out of the water.
“Culturally, traditionally, spiritually, I’m still trying to put two and two together,” he says. “What does climate change really mean? I know what it’s done to us already but how can we look 20, 30, 40 years ahead? Are we even going to be around? With our language, with what we know about our land? Will there be land around to continue this lifestyle? That’s what I need to know.”
The host town to the ghost town
Even far away, fires can have a heavy and lasting impact on the local economy of rural areas.
In the tiny Canadian town of Wells, British Columbia, the Frog on the Bog gift shop is one of only a few businesses. But it’s a community hub for people from kilometres around. “So many people from so many places come here,” says Cheryl Macarthy, the owner. “They want to know about gold. They want to know about shopping. They want a cup of coffee.”
Yes, gold. Macarthy shows off some nuggets recently brought into the store by modern day prospectors. “This was taken out two weeks ago and it’s fabulous,” Macarthy says, pointing to a thumb-sized nodule of the precious mineral. “People quit their jobs or take the summer off to get gold.”
Most people come for the nature, in particular to canoe or kayak in the chain of narrow, serpentine lakes that make up the Bowron Lakes. “The Bowron Lakes are one of the largest and best lake chains in the world for paddling. People come from all over the world,” she says.
Along with mining, paddling has given the town new life in recent years. “We used to stand in the middle of the road and talk to our neighbours and if there was a car it would go around us. With the mining coming in, it’s gotten busier. Wells has changed a lot.”
Another attraction nearby is Barkerville, a ghost town where local people dress up as characters from the old frontier. “We call Wells ‘the host town to the ghost town’. Barkerville was a town in the 1860s and now there are just the performers and they come back to Wells at night. They live here.”
But two seasons of intense wildfires across the western Canadian province means that very few people come to Barkerville and Wells these days. The fires are far away but media reports of blocked roads, fires and smoke have kept tourists away and that has left businesses struggling.
The host town to the ghost town is starting to feel eerily like a ghost town itself. “It’s pretty demoralizing,” says Macarthy. “And it’s really disheartening to go to Barkerville and see the performers doing their show. But there’s no one there to watch them.”
Still, Macarthy says Wells has been relatively lucky because the town didn’t burn and they never needed to be evacuated. But the smoke is taking its toll and people are now beginning to think twice before hitting the road.
“It’s the smoke that has been the straw on the camel’s back for a lot of people.”
And it’s not just the economy that suffers if places like the Frog on the Bog can’t survive. Businesses like this are important community anchors. The Frog on the Bog is even the place people call when there’s an emergency. Macarthy and her husband, Dave, are both trained paramedics.
During my visit, the phone rings. A man out on the lake has been burned and needs to be evacuated to a hospital. “I’ll get Dave to go out and get him,” Macarthy says into the phone. “What kind of burns does he have?”
Although people here are very self-reliant, outside support has helped. When the Canadian Red Cross Society came to see how it could help people affected even indirectly by the wildfires, it decided not to offer short-term aid. Instead, it provided grants so businesses could make some improvements and stay afloat until the tourists come back.
“So our town looks a lot better and more people are stopping all the time. If the Red Cross had not stepped in — and none of us ever thought we would be recipients of help from the Red Cross, which is amazing — we would be in a different place today considering the smoke.”
What really keeps Wells going, Macarthy says, is the commitment that local people, including business owners, have to the local community. Because of these people, Wells will never be a ghost town, even if smoke and fire does continue to choke the local economy.
“Nobody sleeps when it rains”
After the fires, mudslides are the long-term legacy.
The scariest part, says Trina Thompson, is not being able to see where the crashing sounds are coming from. “All you can hear is rocks rolling and trees breaking. You can hear water flowing and water shooting out from culverts under the highway.”
And because mudslides sometimes happen at night, it can be terrifying, not knowing if they have your home in their crosshairs. “Just being able to hear it and not knowing where it was and what was happening — that was the scariest part.”
Thompson lives with her father, Norman Retasket, on family land in a small valley just outside Bonaparte in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Surrounded by large hills, three houses are built on the property, nestled between an often fast-running creek and just steps away from a provincial two-lane highway. After a season of massive wildfires in 2017, mudslides have become a constant threat in the fire-scarred hills. Retasket says the last one, which came within metres of their home, was terrifying.
“The ground was shaking like there was a freight train coming at you. You could hear the rocks rolling and crashing through the trees. You don’t know how big the rocks are, where they are going to stop and if they are coming at you.”
In the area just around Retasket’s house, mudslides have claimed one life. A couple had stopped at the side of the road to admire the scenery, unaware of what was about to transpire. Within the blink of an eye, the hills came to life. Tonnes of soil, rocks and water came gushing down, sweeping away roads, bridges, fences and the couple’s vehicle. One person was saved. The other remains unaccounted for.
Mudslides are becoming increasingly common because the fires destroyed the trees, bushes, grasses and undergrowth that normally hold forest topsoil in place during the rains.
“There’s nothing to hold the water,” Retasket says. “Every time it rains or there are storms, this is going to happen again. If we get record amounts of snowfall, this will happen several times in the spring when it begins to thaw. The threat is going to be here for years until we get vegetation to grow again in the mountains.”
Until then, the psychological impact is constant. “Nobody sleeps when it rains,” Retasket says.
The mudslides have literally changed the topography of Retasket’s land. Not only did they smash a newly installed fence, they also wiped out a bridge that Retasket had built to get his family to the other side of the creek.
“This has changed so much I wouldn’t recognize it if I hadn’t walked out here a few times already,” he says, standing on a rise of earth that was not there only months ago. “This is maybe 10 or 15 feet [three or five metres] deep,” he says.
The loss of the fence is particularly painful. “Every post for that fence I planted myself. I carried them up the hill and planted them, then grabbed another and walked up that hill, around the whole property. Some of the post holes in hard ground took a whole day to dig.”
The combined impact of the fire and the mudslides has put a stop to nearly all his agricultural endeavours and a good portion of his time, energy and money is spent on building defences to future mudslides and fires.
Memories of the 2017 fires, which came to within a few hundred metres of his home, are seared into his mind. He remembers when some 450 firefighters were working in the woods nearby and intentionally started a backburn (a fire created to burn in the opposite direction to the advancing fire) in order to push the fire back up the hill away from his homestead.
“You could feel the heat. Because all these trees were burning. And you could hear the trees screaming,” he adds, making a high-pitched whistling sound. “All the moisture and pitch going out.”
He’s built a raised bank and dug channels to redirect water that might come from further mudslides and floods, and constructed a separate building to house firefighting equipment such as pumps, sprinklers, generators and fire hoses. He also keeps some pumps and hoses near the creek, ready for action, and sandbags are piled up around the well.
“Maybe I’m weird about fire,” he says. “But if this burnt down, my kids wouldn’t have anything.”
Meanwhile, the family lives in a constant state of readiness. “Our freezer is full. Our fridge is full. Because if we get evacuated, or stranded by mudslides, we don’t want to run out of anything. We have our firefighting equipment ready to go. In a way it’s good to be prepared, but emotionally it’s not good. You know? We shouldn’t have to think about this all the time.”