As a resident and homeowner in the Interior of British Columbia, this year’s natural disasters have me questioning my choice to live and invest in the area I once considered Canada’s most underrated paradise.
The carefree, blue-sky summer days that I remember from my childhood in Merritt and Kamloops have become increasingly rare, and the sharp sense of optimism that seemed to spring from the ground and trees when I was young has been dulled by the now-annual threats of displacement from floods and fires.
In 2018, when I convinced my partner (a Toronto native) to move back to the Thompson-Nicola region where I’d grown up, it was with those fair-weather stories of my youth. The forests, lakes and mountains were a year-round playground, and with just a bike and some skis, there was no downside to “Super, Natural B.C.” We would live like I had when I was younger. It would be our own piece of the Canadian dream.
And besides, had she seen the property prices in the B.C. Interior? Compared to the million-dollar houses of Toronto and Vancouver, properties in my hometown of Merritt were highly affordable.
So after two years of living in a one-bedroom apartment in Vancouver, we purchased a four-bedroom fixer-upper in downtown Merritt, some 270 kilometres inland from Vancouver, with a mortgage of $215,000. Later, we moved to Kamloops and rented out the house in Merritt.
At first, the lifestyle was as I recalled from my childhood. We enjoyed the outdoors – exercising, camping and exploring with friends. We grew fitter and developed tans.
But earlier this year the fires came – clouding our optimism, filling our lungs with smoke and our hearts with worry. We hid inside our home for much of the summer, crowding around second-hand air-conditioning units we’d hastily installed and glancing longingly at our bikes and disc-golf bags as we watched coverage of people losing their homes nearby.
One gusty night this summer during the fires, my father – unable to sleep as the flames crept up the mountain across the valley from his ranch 30 kilometres north of Merritt – gathered his horses and dogs and drove to the safety of his daughter’s house in town. Just three months later, my sister and her three young boys would make that same pilgrimage in reverse as she fled rising waters in the city.
We were away from our home when the atmospheric river came down last week. Plans to return to the Interior literally washed away overnight.
Friends share videos of the damage in Merritt, where the Coldwater River gushed past usual high-water marks and poured into the basements of downtown residents. A mobile home floated along the river before being swallowed beneath a bridge. A helicopter rescued a family trapped on their roof. My brother-in-law, a firefighter for the City of Merritt, changed his two pairs of socks on rotation – “it doesn’t matter when you can’t shower,” he texted me.
From what we know so far, our home, situated on Coldwater Avenue – named after the nearby swollen river – was miraculously spared, as it was during the fires. We were the lucky ones: A call to our insurer confirmed that inland flood damage would not have been covered under our policy.
Like the charred forests visible on the highway drives that surround it – mountainsides whose tree canopies were once as thick as hairbrushes, now reduced to spindly combs – my hometown no longer looks the same as it once did.
The optimism, that feeling of natural bounty that used to rise from the land here, has been tainted with the heaviness of potential danger. Now, when I gaze at the flowing rivers or lift my face to the falling rain, I’m filled not only with the sense of beauty and abundance, but with a fearful respect for this place’s destructive potential.
As we continue our holding pattern at a friend’s condo in Vancouver and await the reopening of routes and the repopulation of Merritt, we once again count our blessings. Among B.C. homeowners and residents, we are lucky.
Still, all this disaster so close to home makes me wonder: Might we be luckier somewhere else?
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