Originally published as a column in CFJC Today Kamloops and Armchair Mayor News on Monday, August 20, 2018. 

Last week, during a drive from Vancouver, we took a short break in Hope. It was almost 10 o’clock at night and the fire near Agassiz was raging, mountain aglow and the plume above it a threatening dark grey. As we got out of the car, the air was thick with heavy, grey smoke. Though far enough from the fire, the smell was overwhelming. I could not imagine what it would be like to be right there, gear on, tools and everything, fighting this hot monster up close. Or the rest of the almost 600 fires across the province.

Through my husband’s deployment experiences during the time he worked closely with wildland firefighters, I got to hear many stories that started with ‘smoke so thick…’ and ‘flames coming from both sides of the road…’ and of course, stories of the camps that firefighting personnel had set up near the fires. I cannot imagine what it would be like to breathe that in day in day out. More so when you do heavy physical activity and you breathe a lot more of that smoke in than when you keep your activities and exposure to as low a level as possible.

Which is why I shake my head whenever I hear anyone comment on whether the firefighters are paid too much or whether they are ‘actually fighting the fires’ (since the smoke pouring upon us seems heavier each day, a sign that the fires are spreading.) Short answer is yes, they are. Trouble is, nature tends to be stubborn when climate change catalyzes otherwise natural phenomena into out-of-control events.

Let us all agree that gratefulness for their service should be all that pops in our minds these days. While we take photos of the apocalyptic landscape, or as much of it as is visible, and commiserate over the awfulness of it all, firefighters are living it all from close range. We are learning more about what they go through: exhaustion, dehydration, poor diet and lack of sleep. The big one of course, is exposure to smoke, which can increase the risk of heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

We already know that wildfire smoke affects people with cardiovascular and respiratory issues, and sometimes even little exposure can wreak havoc, but little is known about the effects of smoke on otherwise healthy and fit people. I will pause here to say that outdoor exercising during very smoky days is not a good idea. The human body is resilient, but that should not encourage anyone to take health for granted.

I believe there are a few more items we can all agree on:

  • Clean air is not a luxury. We need more research on the long-term effects of smoke exposure in the general population and firefighters. That knowledge can be used to help design strategies to mitigate the effects and it can also expand our understanding of what pollution means and why doing everything possible to enhance air quality is worth it (that goes after the wildfire season ends too.)
  • Climate change is real. Whether some still disagree about human activity being a major factor, a quick look at our province, and the world as a whole, brings up a few choking details: forest fires are popping up bigger and meaner than ever before due to many factors that increase the risk and scale of devastation such as hot and dry weather, and excess fuel due to diseases and parasites no longer killed during winter. The areas devastated by wildfire this year can become landslide areas the following year. In other parts of the world heavy downpours cause severe flooding and landslides, displacing hundreds of thousands and killing hundreds of others. The time to disagree on what is causing all of this is past us. Now we need to focus on keeping communities as safe as possible and one way is to choose leaders who will be able to do so.
  • Last but not least, the wonderfulness of human spirit which makes people go out of their way in helping those displaced and affected by fires, floods and landslides. Every couple of days a story like that pops out in the news. In times of trouble, we do see it all, but there will always be more of those who are ready to help than turn their backs or worse, profit from a natural disaster. That alone is reason enough to never give up hope.