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Smoky skies hang over Osoyoos, B.C., as seen from the First Nations-owned Nk'Mip Winery. This fire season has broken new temperature records that bode ill for future years as climate change takes hold.

Photography by Nancy MacDonald/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia always approaches the summer fire season with trepidation. But this year feels different. June besieged the bone-dry province with an almost vengeful heat wave, one that left 600 people dead. Along the Pacific Coast, more than a billion mussels, clams, barnacles, sea stars and hermit crabs baked to death.

The Interior saw the worst of it. For three days, the region logged temperatures never seen in Canada, topping out at 50 C in the tiny town of Lytton, in the Fraser Canyon. The next day, Lytton burned to the ground, leaving two dead.

It presaged what could turn out to be the most destructive wildfire season on record, with 248 active fires and 474,000 hectares burned so far.

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Active wildfires in British Columbia

As of July 30, 2021

Active fires

Hotspots, past 24 hours

B.C.

Active fires

In hectares

60,000

Vancouver

30,000

10,000

Victoria

Tsal’alh First Nation

Ashcroft

Lillooet

Vernon

Seton Portage

Coldstream

Edgewood

THE OKANAGAN

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

CANADIAN WILDLAND FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM

Active wildfires in British Columbia

As of July 30, 2021

Active fires

Hotspots, past 24 hours

B.C.

Active fires

In hectares

60,000

Vancouver

30,000

10,000

Victoria

Tsal’alh First Nation

Ashcroft

Lillooet

Vernon

Seton Portage

Coldstream

Edgewood

THE OKANAGAN

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

CANADIAN WILDLAND FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM

Active wildfires in British Columbia

As of July 30, 2021

Active fires

Hotspots, past 24 hours

B.C.

Active fires

In hectares

60,000

Vancouver

30,000

10,000

Victoria

Tsal’alh First Nation

Ashcroft

Lillooet

Vernon

Seton Portage

Coldstream

Edgewood

THE OKANAGAN

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: CANADIAN WILDLAND

FIRE INFORMATION SYSTEM

These unsettling events seem to have jolted the province’s collective understanding – that our dominion over fire and climate might be slipping, that an emergency is now upon us. Some 32,000 British Columbians are under evacuation alert, with no relief in sight. Most of the province has gone six weeks without rain, and another heat wave looms this weekend. On top of that, dry lightning storms – responsible for some 60 per cent of this year’s fires – are pummelling the province. Fire-alert warning signs are all stuck at the bright-red edge of the semi-circle – “SEVERE” – and the B.C. Wildfire Service is warning the risk of fire is at its highest in decades.

The Globe and Mail circled the Interior last week, asking dozens of British Columbians to describe life in wildfire country – and why this season has them worried for the future.



Rod Louie, CEO of the Tsal’alh Development Corp., looks out at the mountains in the First Nation's territory.

SETON PORTAGE / TSAL’ALH FIRST NATION TERRITORY

There are only two roads in and out of Seton Portage. One, known as the Highline, requires a 4x4 to get up the steepest climbs. It’s a white-knuckle drive along a single lane cut into the cliffs high above the turquoise waters of Anderson Lake. The other goes up and over Mission Mountain, an hour-long journey of hairpin turns toward Lillooet. You can’t go much faster than 30 kilometres an hour on either road.

This leaves members of the Tsal’alh First Nation who live here incredibly vulnerable to fire. Dry lightning storms have hit the pine forests surrounding Seton Portage for five days straight. Drought has left them tinder-dry. No one seems to be sleeping much. “People here are really, really scared,” says community member William Alexander, checking in with the band office to make sure his two-way radio is working. There’s no cell service, so if an evacuation order comes through, his radio is the only way he’ll hear about it.

Mr. Alexander, a survivor of the Kamloops Indian Residential School and former band manager for the Tsal’alh, has set up sprinklers along his roof and gassed up his dust-covered Subaru. He backed an old Jeep into the driveway of a neighbour who doesn’t own a vehicle. It’s not insured, but it runs fine.

Chief James Randy says he’s never seen fires so early or experienced such unrelenting heat. “It’s going to be 38 degrees all next week,” he adds.

If they need to flee, band members won’t get much warning. The last time they evacuated, in the middle of the night in the summer of 2009, a fire went from discovery to 400-hectare raging inferno in 60 minutes.

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This isolated nation’s roots run deep in the water and rock of the Cayoosh Range. Their reliance on the land for food, medicine and culture puts them on the front lines of climate change, says Rod Louie, chief executive officer of the Tsal’alh Development Corp., speaking from the high alpine atop Mission Mountain. The moss beneath his feet should be wet and squishy and deep green, he notes. He takes a handful, crumbling it to a fine, brown dust.

Mr. Louie, a trim runner, points to the Bridge Glacier in the distance. It feeds the nation’s streams, rivers and lakes. It’s one of the fastest-receding glaciers in North America and may soon disappear. In the distance, a juvenile mule deer lies curled in the shade of a Ponderosa pine, too stunned by the mid-day heat to run from the humans watching him.

“We used to get a lot of snow and very, very cold winters,” Mr. Louie says. “Now, we have very little snow. If we do see rain, it’s a deluge.” Two “once in 200-year” floods recently hit the community two springs in a row.

This territory is already badly scarred by heavy industrial activity, heightening climate concerns.

CN Rail’s tracks cut off access to both Seton and Anderson Lakes. The Bridge River Power Project – the biggest in B.C. when it was completed in 1960 – bisects Tsal’alh territory. It diverted the once-mighty Bridge River through a mountain via a system of dams and powerhouses. This turned the crystalline waters of Seton Lake a milky blue and devastated several salmon runs. Flooding chased off once-plentiful herds of game from the valley’s serpentine meadows.

A common Tsal’alh saying goes, “The fish, the river, the lake is life. When the fish are gone, the people will be gone, too.” This is the process Rod Louie has devoted his life to trying to arrest – and one the fires may yet undo.



Wendy Adams and Mike Niemiec of Lillooet, B.C., moved here because they consider it the 'last affordable place in the province.' Now, fires are a chronic risk to the community.

LILLOOET

A spine-chilling drive over the Mission Mountain pass ends in Lillooet, which shimmers under the white heat of midday. Some of the residents who fled the Lytton fire, 55 kilometres to the south, ended up here.

The hot wind coming off the bare desert hills smells of sagebrush and dust – cowboy cologne. The high peaks of the Coast Mountains tend to wring all the moisture from the air, hence the town’s nickname: “Little-wet.”

With four major wildfires burning in the region around town, the sobriquet feels ominous. A massive blaze known as the McKay Creek fire is burning 11 kilometres to the north. And it’s so dry right now that any rain that falls evaporates before it can hit the ground.

Wendy Adams recently settled in Lillooet with her husband, Mike Niemiec, and their busy black-and-white pups, Olive, Claire and Angus. Ms. Adams loves her quiet new home – with the surrounding pink desert canyons that “look the way it was 150 years ago” – but the reality is, they didn’t have much choice but to move. Rents in the Lower Mainland have risen beyond their reach, and Ms. Adams, who works at a local call centre, calls Lillooet the “last affordable place in the province.” The mobile home they share with a tenant on the banks of the Fraser River runs them a little over $1,000 a month.

As for Mr. Niemiec, a former mechanic, the “Ride Till Death” tattoo on his strong bicep and a long, healthy goatee belie his weakened state. Countless renovations he worked on over the years exposed him to asbestos, whose fine fibres slowly chewed through his lungs. Now, he speaks through a wheeze and relies on disability cheques to get by.

But as much as he and Ms. Adams love this calm place, where they’re able to grow their own vegetables, peaches and plums, the smoke that often cloaks Lillooet in summer – especially this year – is slowly choking him. Even on good days, Mr. Niemiec is left weary by coughing fits. But they have nowhere else to go.

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Ashcroft, B.C., has some of the world's worst air quality.

ASHCROFT

Carmen Jacobsen isn’t getting much sleep these days. She lives on an acreage outside Ashcroft, which is surrounded by wildfires. To the north, the Sparks Lake fire, the largest in B.C. at 40,000 hectares, has closed Highway 97. The Lytton Creek fire, the province’s next biggest at 37,000 hectares, has closed Highway 1 to the south. The biggest threat to Ashcroft is the Tremont Creek fire, which is burning just south of Ashcroft and has grown to 19,000 hectares. Ms. Jacobsen wakes up every hour to check on its approach from her driveway. “If the wind picks up, it could be here in a half-hour,” she says.

In dry weather like this, wind can act like a bellows, turning a small fire into a shrieking, growling, galloping beast. The highway to Kamloops is the only escape route out of Ashcroft, which has some of the worst air quality in the world – roughly twice as bad as any city in China, Bangladesh or India. The heat has made everything worse.

In the hours after an evacuation alert was issued for Ashcroft and the neighbouring town of Cache Creek on July 14 – an alert that remains in place today – the streets emptied quickly. The only sign of life came from the village pool, where a handful of kids were still screaming and splashing, oblivious to the fire raging across the clear, blue Thompson River. At that point, it was still eight kilometres from town. Through the haze, the sun above the pool glowed like a red orb. You could hear the rhythmic thumping of the helicopters dropping buckets on the fire, which was burning out of control.

If ordered to leave, “I’ll be staying right here,” Ms. Jacobsen says, country music playing softly as she speaks. “I’ve got too much to lose.”

It wouldn’t be the first time Ms. Jacobsen stayed behind. In 2017, she and several neighbours ignored an evacuation order to fight the Elephant Hill fire, saving their homes, along with dozens of horses, pigs and cattle. The nearby Ashcroft Indian Band wasn’t so lucky – half the community burned to the ground.

Ms. Jacobsen’s acreage on a sliver of land high above the Thompson – where the dead grass crunches underfoot like gravel – is both refuge and hideaway. She first saw it in 2005, not long after witnessing the murder of her best friend, Tracey Jack, the only woman she’d ever met who liked fast motorcycles as much as she.

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Ms. Jack was gunned down in the Harley shop in Prince George where she worked with Ms. Jacobsen. The gunman also shot their friend Mark Guillet, a mechanic, in the stomach, before Ms. Jacobsen jumped on his back and managed to wrest the weapon from him. The horror and pain left her scared of noises and crowds. A backfiring engine could leave her shaking and white-faced. But long, hard days tending crops and caring for her pigs and cows seemed to chip away at some of the hurt.

That’s why she didn’t leave in 2017 and why she’s refusing to go now. The last fire burned a U-shape around her home. She lost her roof, her irrigation system, her garage, and all the tools and vehicles she needed to run the farm. Her neighbour’s house burned to the ground, along with the trailer park below her. Then came two devastating mudslides, in 2018 and 2019. Ms. Jacobsen says she had a river of mud “running right through the house and garage.” She rebuilt both times, though she says her pricey insurance policies never seemed to cover the real costs of rebuilding, and flooding is deemed “an act of God,” leaving her out hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Amid all that, a thief broke in and robbed her blind. “There are a lot of desperate people around here,” she says. “The only ones making any money are the insurance companies.”



Ostriches surround Katie Pasitney and David Bilinski on their ranch in Edgewood. The birds depend on the ranchers for food and water, and in the event of a fire, it would be a challenge to relocate them.

EDGEWOOD

The Monashee Pass twists and turns as it slowly climbs the mountains east of Vernon. Dozens of dazed chipmunks and songbirds fleeing the five major fires in the region congregate on the road, as if trying to figure out how to escape. Near Cherryville, locals have set up “fire water” stations – buckets and oil drums filled with water, ready to douse any spot fires that might be sparked along the roadway.

Both Edgewood and nearby Needles are under mandatory evacuation because of the Michaud Creek fire burning near Lower Arrow Lake. But Katie Pasitney and her family, who own an ostrich ranch in Edgewood, some five kilometres from the blaze, say they cannot leave.

“You can’t load up 500 ostriches – they’re not like cattle,” Ms. Pasitney says. Her mother, Karen Esperson, co-owns the 29-year-old ostrich ranch, the biggest in the country, with her business partner, David Bilinski. Even if they did manage to load some of the birds into horse trailers, they would likely die going over the Monashee in 38-degree heat, Ms. Pasitney says.

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Mr. Bilinski, a former logger who has lived in the region his entire life, lets her do the talking. Every time he tries to speak to reporters, he breaks down and cries. The situation has grown desperate. Embers and burning bark have started landing in the yard. One burned a hole through a neighbour’s car.

Right now, their main concern is the 500 mouths they have to feed, Ms. Pasitney says, choking up. Drought has turned their normally green pasture, the birds’ primary food source, to dust. They can’t truck in hay, given the roadblocks and the fire risk such a load would carry. “Every time one of us leaves, there is a risk of being down two hands and two feet if they can’t make it back through a closure,” she says. With the ferry to Fauquier closed due to fire, there’s only one road out.

The tall, prehistoric birds, who roam African savannah and desert lands, seem strangely at home here in the Monashee highlands, dancing and twirling for attention, and chasing the two farm dogs, chirruping and hissing when they get too close. Each has their own distinctive hairdo and name. Ms. Esperson gently calls to each, patting their soft backsides, trying to calm the smoke-stressed animals. Normally during summer breeding season, the hens produce 30 eggs a day. Only one can be found in the six-foot nests today. They’ve been averaging just two a day since the fires started.

The ranch produces eggs, leather and meat, but its biggest business has typically been a line of skincare products used to treat eczema, psoriasis and burns. It’s believed ostriches have the strongest immune systems of any animal in the world, and Mr. Bilinski and Ms. Esperson believe they’ve come up with an entirely new therapeutic use for their eggs.

They’re building on the groundbreaking research of Yasuhiro Tsukamoto, dean at Kyoto Prefectural University, who developed antibodies capable of blocking the SARS virus during the 2003 outbreak. Working with a lab in eastern Canada, Mr. Bilinski and Ms. Esperson say they’ve managed to produce antibodies using immunoglobulin yolk that can neutralize COVID-19. While studies are being conducted on ostrich antibodies and their effect on certain viruses, there is no firm evidence they are effective against COVID-19. He’s working with a company in Vancouver to develop a nasal spray that could help treat critically ill COVID patients by attacking the virus in the lungs.

“I always believed these birds would do something great,” Mr. Bilinski says. He and his brother have bulldozed a fire perimeter around the 25-acre property. Every afternoon, they soak the birds, the grounds and the barns. At night, all five ranchers sleep together in the main farmhouse, taking turns watching over the fire’s progress. “It’s a bit like waiting for war,” Ms. Pasitney says. “You don’t know how the cavalry is doing ahead of you.”

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If the fire makes it down the valley, the plan is to meet in the paddock amid the birds, “wetting them and keeping them safe.” The animals “can’t access water or feed without our help,” she says. “After 20 years, they are our babies. We can’t just abandon them.”



At top, Kathleen Ott holds items from her fire go-bag outside Okanagan Falls, B.C. She and her husband, Werner, pictured below, grow currants on a hobby farm in Coldstream. This summer's heat dried them out.

COLDSTREAM

Werner and Kathleen Ott were expecting to produce around 1,000 pounds of currants at their hobby farm in B.C.’s Okanagan, famed for its hot, dry weather and warm lakes.

But this summer, it got so scorching that in nearby Vernon, nesting great blue herons started dropping from trees; thirteen died. The Otts’ berries dried out and died, too, falling to earth like tiny brown pebbles. Their raspberries melted to a hot, sticky goo, costing them thousands in lost revenue.

Since retiring to Coldstream from Thunder Bay six years ago, the Otts have learned to keep their car gassed up and their go-bags packed. Tupperware bins filled with their daughters’ baby albums, their marriage certificate and Kathleen’s grandfather’s books sit at the door all summer long, then move to the attic for winter.

They were under evacuation alert in mid-July due to the Becker Lake fire and could’ve gotten just a few minutes’ warning when it was time to flee.

A second nearby fire might have threatened the community were it not for the quick thinking of big-rig driver Tommy Bridge. By the time he pulled his truck over to stamp out a tiny fire he spotted in a ditch outside Coldstream on July 17, it had quadrupled in size and was roaring up a hill like a speeding train, powered by a strong wind blowing off nearby Kalamalka Lake.

It was around 10 p.m., and Mr. Bridge, who is in his early forties, with dark hair and pale blue eyes, was headed home after a run to Cranbrook. He thinks the blaze – which came to be known as the Clerke Road fire – might have been sparked by a cigarette tossed from a passing car.

Mr. Bridge, who was carrying a fire extinguisher, lost his sandals as he chased the flames, which ultimately took firefighters two days to contain.

“My little fire extinguisher was no match for this monster. Within seconds, it was out of control.”

Mr. Bridge has lived in Kelowna for three decades. “For 15 years,” he says, “we never had fires like this. Now, the whole Okanagan is covered in smoke all summer long.”

Despite the evident effects of a warming climate, there’s a strong climate-change-denial bent among local residents. Mr. Ott struggles to explain it: “Social media can be a beautiful thing, but there’s so much conspiracy,” he says, “You can have the sublime works of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and then you have Bubba the truck driver. And they are set on the same level.”

People are gleeful in their ignorance, he adds. “I mean, it was 47 degrees outside, and I lost 90 per cent of my crop.”

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Emily Mayne of Okanagan Falls, B.C., has developed asthma since moving to the town in 2015, and needs several inhalers to get through the fire season.

THE OKANAGAN

Small flakes of ash were falling on Lake Skaha in the heat and gloom of midday on July 15. A 7,000-hectare wildfire known as the Thomas Creek fire was burning in the sandy hills above town, one of three major blazes in the region. In the distance, a water truck was using the shoreline boat launch to fill a load.

Skaha is one of several popular Okanagan lakes that are closed to boaters, so water bombers can fill their pontoons without having to deke and dodge pleasure craft. That hasn’t stopped families from coming to soak in the warm, shallow waters along the shore.

Emily Mayne lives just off Skaha’s bustling beach, in Okanagan Falls, a few doors from Tickleberry’s, the iconic roadside ice cream and curio shop. She moved here in 2015, and four of her six summers have been upended by fires. Twice, they came close enough that she was issued evacuation alerts. Her voice is hoarse, and her eyes are red and stinging. The 46-year-old has developed asthma since moving here, from breathing in ultrafine particles from wildfire smoke, which can lodge in the lungs and make breathing difficult. Ms. Mayne relies on three different puffers to get through fire season.

Each summer, she sets up kiddie pools in her yard for wildlife seeking refuge from the flames – deer, raccoons and the odd skunk and coyote. “At night, when you go to bed, all you can think about is the fire raging a few kilometres from your front door, and all the people and animals impacted.” She stores medicine, food for her two chihuahuas, and a change of clothes in a go-bag by the front door. She also tucks a tiny urn in there. “I’m adopted, and my birth mother has passed,” she says. “The ashes are pretty much all I have left of her.”

This isn’t what the former social worker imagined life would be like when she moved to the sunny Okanagan. She came to help run the 10-unit apartment building her parents own on Main Street. Ms. Mayne had been raising her son in the Lower Mainland until rents grew beyond the reach of a single mother. They now share the caretaker’s unit with their dogs, Peanut and Squeaky.

Her parents, who are in their mid-80s, can’t live forever. She worries about where she’ll go when they die. Ms. Mayne knows first-hand how hot even the local rental market has grown in tiny OK Falls. Several times a week, someone knocks on her door asking if a unit has come available. Another sign is the camp that has emerged in the forest above town. People sleep in vans, pickup campers and fourth-hand RVs, some with kids, dogs and rabbits. They either can’t find housing or can’t afford what’s available. They wait tables at the wineries and clean hotel rooms but are effectively homeless, undone by flat wages and rising housing costs.

A tenant-to-be has pitched a tent in Ms. Mayne’s yard. He was renovicted from his previous place, and she can’t get him into a unit for another month. The malefic collision of crises – fires, the warming climate, lack of affordable housing – are making life hotter, more difficult and altogether more dangerous.

The empty beach at the east end of Osoyoos Lake would normally be busy with people. Wildfire smoke has kept everyone away.


An earlier version of this story quoted ostrich farmers saying their ostrich-derived immunoglobin could neutralize the Delta variant. In fact, while studies are being conducted on ostrich antibodies and COVID-19, there is no firm evidence they are effective.

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