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VANCOUVER, BC Jul 12, 2015/ Troy Media/ – “Last Sunday when the ash was raining down and the temperature was 30 degrees, it felt like I was in Beijing!” My neighbour down the beach made this comment to me as we talked about his new job on the land-based shell fish aquaculture project being constructed by a group of Chinese investors.
It was the summative comment of the week for me; a week that saw a series of wildfires explode dry forest tinder in the Pemberton-Whistler area, and Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast.
After two months of record dryness and temperatures, the forests finally caught fire, sending huge plumes of smoke and fly ash into the sky. The local media says that the Sechelt Fire was started at an old mine site by someone target shooting; the Pemberton Fire appears to have been started by a lightning strike. In the end it doesn’t really matter, because the woods are so dry, sunlight refracting through a discarded beer bottle could start a blaze.
I drove up to Skelhp on the Sunshine Coast from Vancouver on Tuesday, after a weekend in Toronto attending a family wedding. Hog town was full of tourists, high on summer freedom, beautiful weather and the pleasures of the urban scene. It’s been cooler and wetter than average in Toronto, and people are looking forward to a sustained period of heat. Many were aware of the drought now enveloping the Pacific Northwest, but no one was particularly concerned. It all seemed far away.
Returning to ‘far away’ was an interesting experience. The WestJet cabin crew on the direct flight to Vancouver didn’t say a word about what we were about to breathe in: an air quality advisory covering the entire lower mainland from Hope to Vancouver, from Whistler down the Sea to Sky highway and up the entire length of the Sunshine Coast. When we arrived over Vancouver, all that was visible outside the aircraft was a pall of sun-streaked yellow smoke. The final approach to the airport revealed nothing until we were about 150 metres above the runway.
While the worst ash and smoke had billowed through on Sunday, by Monday Vancouver was still covered in familiar shades of grey, but none of them were due to fog, mist or rain. It was all about smoke. A faint smell of campfire in the air registered as soon as you left the air conditioned confines of the airport. When I got to my car in the short-term parking lot, it was sprinkled with white ash. The North Shore mountains were barely visible.
Remarkably, as I drove downtown, cyclists and a few runners were out inhaling small particle pollution as if it didn’t exist. Life pedalled on and no one wore a face mask. Sitting in the car with the windows rolled up, I began to experience a tightness in my chest. Our Olympic Village rental apartment was left with the windows shut, and thankfully it provided a cool oasis from the outside world. But it wasn’t enough. Outside was barely tolerable. I knew that I had to leave Vancouver soon for cleaner air.
Living through the apocalypse
People in the shops, friends and family were glad that ‘the worst had passed.’ A fellow in the Urban Fare food store line-up said that, “Sunday was like the apocalypse! The air quality is much better today.” Comparatively perhaps, but compared to a lifetime experience of what is normal, it was godawful. It struck me how humans try ever so hard in adverse conditions to put a good spin on awful. Everything is going to be alright, we think. I am not so sure. The whole drought and fire combination now unravelling before us is at a minimum a precursor for what a world of greater heat portends.
On Tuesday afternoon I packed up to return up coast. The entire five hour trip was driven and ferried through smoke, especially close to Sechelt. It only finally began to dissipate as I reached my home. As always, I celebrated the return by walking along the ancient shoreline trail. And how ironic that I meet my first environmental refugee at Skelhp, the place I have chosen to receive my human ashes. He has chosen Canada as his new home because of our environment. “They burn so much coal in China, the pollution is terrible,” he says as we look upwards at a slowly bluing sky.
Troy Media syndicated columnist Mike Robinson has been CEO of three Canadian NGOs: the Arctic Institute of North America, the Glenbow Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery.
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