I broke down when I flicked on my camera Monday afternoon. All around me, waters were rising on the Sumas Prairie, swallowing cars, then farmhouses, then barns. The scenic plain south of Abbotsford, home to dairy, poultry and berry farms galore, seemed to be turning into a lake.
Adrenaline was ripping through me like a drug. I had been driving through cold, brown water so deep I couldn’t see the road beneath me. Both shoulders had disappeared beneath the waves, so I couldn’t pull over. I was searching for higher ground. But I kept hitting water.
I finally stopped to snap a photo with my SLR camera in the middle of a road reduced to a single lane. That’s when I saw the last one I’d taken, three months prior, during one of B.C.’s worst fire seasons on record.
The sky it depicted – near Princeton, east of where I was standing now – was orange. It was afternoon, but thick smoke had so darkened the day it tripped my flash.
The acrid taste of ash came rushing back to me. I remembered the way my clothes reeked of smoke, how my throat never stopped aching, the screaming, hot winds coming off the fires.
Looking at that photo, I felt a wave of grief wash over me – for all the loss and pain and death the province has endured in the past five months. But also, for the way the world was before it warped, and grew disordered and scary.
The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht calls the feeling “solastalgia” – the homesickness or longing that sets in when rapid environmental change makes the familiar suddenly unfamiliar.
Looking back, June’s heat dome – which killed 362 people in two days – and the catastrophic fires of July and August no longer feel like singular events. They feel like parts of cascading disasters, one triggering the next – the way the baking heat led to the wildfires that begat the mudslides that cut off entire cities and transportation networks.
They were also a portent of something new; a foreshadowing. The end of normal, which is what some here in Chilliwack have begun calling it. I have been marooned here for the past five days.
B.C., like something out of The Walking Dead, has been reduced to a series of islets and land masses. People in Chilliwack have begun referring to Chilliwack Island. “How are things on Hope Island?” a fishing guide shouted as we came ashore there yesterday.
Interior cities such as Kelowna and Kamloops, which have welcomed evacuees from the shattered communities of Princeton and Merritt, are still cut off from the rest of the province. They may be for some time yet.
I had travelled up the swollen Fraser River with a group of five angling guides from Chilliwack, each running boats on their own time and gas. They were delivering donated meat, diapers, infant formula, fruit and milk to four B.C. First Nations – the Chawathil, the Shxw’owhamel, Soowahlie and Peters nations.
Mudslides and washouts, tripped by the rivers of rain that fell over the province last weekend, have made Highway 3 impassable, trapping band members in their homes.
Upstream, we passed the remains of a mudslide on Highway 7, near Agassiz. It had the sombre feel of a grave site.
The boat went suddenly quiet as we gaped at the fresh brown wound cutting into the mountainside, then the ribbon of abandoned cars still snaking behind it.
You can see its starting point at roughly 1,500 feet – a bald patch where hundreds of towering pines were ripped from the ground and sent hurtling down the mountain, bulldozing at least a half dozen cars. It is not known whether all inside survived.
Yves Bisson, 47, who was leading the convoy of boats, had to keep us moving. We had set off more than an hour late and darkness was starting to fall. You could see the stress surging through Mr. Bisson, a director of the Fraser Valley Angling Guides Association, which has been organizing these impromptu drops, evacuations and water rescues.
The wide, wild Fraser became a debris field after last weekend’s storm. Branches and logs are lurking just below the surface like land mines, ready to rip through the aluminum hull of a fishing boat. After dark, they become invisible.
None of these boats are insured for this type of work. Sticks and mud have gummed up Mr. Bisson’s engine, which has been overheating all day. The angling guides, who are running out of gas, are refusing payment. (They will accept donations to a program that takes schoolchildren out on the river during the winter. The kids hunt for juvenile sturgeon, part of a data project aimed at keeping healthy stocks of the prehistoric Fraser giants.)
Mr. Bisson made it back to Agassiz just as the low November sun dipped behind the mountains. Steering for shore, he began to weep. “It’s been such a hard week,” said the father of three grown girls.
I have never seen so many people cry as in the last four months.
The rivers aren’t supposed to be this full in November. Before this year, B.C.’s biggest floods were springtime events, activated by snowmelt crashing down the mountains. Fires like the ones this summer used to strike once in a generation. People in the Interior told me they have come to expect them to hit every few years, or every one.
The smoke and neon sunsets produced by the scattering ash and chemicals have become as much a part of Okanagan summers as cherries, peaches and Tickleberry’s ice cream.
The truth is, so much of covering these cascading tragedies feels the same. I feel the same low-level anxiety now as I did last July. This time it’s the pumps at Barrowtown that keep me awake at night. Then, it was fears that the Michaud Creek wildfire would jump the Thompson River and take out Ashcroft and Cache Creek.
There is also a sameness to the highway closings that push you farther and farther off track, until they finally trap you. When I’m looking for evacuees, I know now to look for them sleeping in cars in Walmart parking lots and near closed highway exits.
And I am tormented by the manic behaviour of animals who can smell the approaching smoke and see the rising floodwater, but don’t know where to run. Late Monday, I patted the velvet head of a black calf, not knowing whether it would live or die.
But the clearest parallel might be the goodness I saw in people.
Parham Pashaei, a PhD student from Vancouver, was among dozens trapped in Agassiz for four days this week after being airlifted from the slide at Highway 7. Many survived a harrowing night in their cars on the mountainside only to be trapped on the Island of Chilliwack by the flooding of Highway 1. Mr. Pashaei told me how a local woman put him up, fed him, loaned him her car, then threw a bonfire party in his honour. “She even gave me the socks she was going to give to her husband for Christmas,” he said. “Until that moment, I didn’t realize how cold and wet I was. Nothing in the world could ever feel as good as clean, dry socks.”
We are never better than when we come together this way. Lending a hand gives those living through these disasters a sense of purpose and of hope, Mr. Bisson explains. This is how we get through these events.
A few minutes after I took that summer photo with the vivid orange sky, ash was falling so hard I had to turn on my wipers. Near Princeton, where I stopped to pick up a bathing suit at Field’s, police redirected me to Highway 5.
It was the last time I saw the pretty mountain town whole. This week, the Tulameen River swallowed almost half of its downtown.
Merritt has lost parts of its downtown now, too, after the Coldwater River carved an entirely new channel through it earlier this week.
When I interviewed people this week, I recognized the same hypervigilance, the shaking hands, the dead-eyed stares I had seen in victims of fire this summer.
A recent study by scientists at the University of California San Diego found that survivors of California’s Camp Fire were suffering from PTSD on par with war veterans. They can’t know it yet, but the fear and pain people from the Sumas Plain and Merritt and Princeton are feeling will never really go away. The experience will change them. I know something of this.
My dad, Neil James Macdonald, died the day after we evacuated our home on the Red River during what became known in Manitoba as the “flood of the century.” Likely, the ‘97 flood, triggered by a freak April blizzard, was an early harbinger of the changing climate. Two more historic floods followed, until we stopped calling them unprecedented.
My childhood home in the Rural Municipality of Ritchot is gone now. The Red has begun reclaiming the bank where it once stood.
On the day he died, my dad, who was known for his sharp wit and full-bodied laugh, managed to talk his way through the RCMP barricade in the evacuation zone. He had gone back for my bike. On the way out, he was felled by a massive heart attack. He was 49.
I was 16 then, but all these years later, I still feel his absence like a hole at my core. I don’t ever talk about him. I can’t. My son, Neil James, is named for him.
The storms have abated in British Columbia. We have more than just highways and cities to rebuild.
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