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Gary Mason
Gary Mason


Western Canada: In the line of fire Add to ...

Metro Vancouver woke up this week to one of the eeriest images residents have ever seen. Sunny skies that have recently become the new normal were blotted out by a dreary grey haze that had an unsettling, ethereal quality about it.

It was different from the type of gloom that we know well here, the one that settles over the area when it is about to rain. But there were no clouds ready to open up. Instead, the sky was covered with an apocalyptic veneer that reminded me of the New York skyline after the fall of the Twin Towers.

We would learn that what we were observing was the fallout from the hundreds of forest fires burning in the province. Several were close enough to Vancouver that a shift in the wind helped send smoke and ash across hundreds of kilometres. Space-fed pictures from NASA showed half of British Columbia covered in white smoke from fires. The collective reaction was one of awe and disbelief.

There hasn’t been a summer like this in recent memory. It’s not just British Columbia – all of Western Canada is on fire. British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Alberta are burning through existing firefighting budgets at never-before-seen rates. British Columbia sent out the call for help in battling its blazes, knowing even with the addition of some trench-diggers from Ontario it won’t be nearly enough to contain all the fires currently on the go. And that’s not to mention the 30 new ones a day that are expected until the end of the season.

It would be easier to take if we could write this off as simply one particularly bad stretch, but it’s not. Those who study and understand climate science have been warning for years that we were in for some unsettling times and, well, they seem to be upon us.

We are now being told that this is what we can expect into the future; fire seasons that once lasted five months will now stretch to seven months. The budgets needed to fight these forest fires have grown 30 times since the 1970s and they will grow at even faster proportions in the years ahead.

This will have a bottom-line impact for all of us.

Meanwhile, fires burn out of control as water levels in Vancouver drop at alarming degrees. Municipalities are instituting strict new watering restrictions that could get more draconian if this warm, dry weather continues. It’s anticipated the weather will have an adverse effect on salmon runs this summer, and may well do so into the future.

A new report issued by the University of British Columbia on Thursday shows that the world’s monitored seabird populations have dropped 70 per cent since the 1950s. Seabirds are good indicators of the health of the marine ecosystem. It has likely been negatively affected by several factors, including overfishing and habitat destruction, as well as environmental and ecological shifts caused by climate change.

Many people will be ready to dismiss all this as alarmist; they will insist that this is just an especially bad spell that will be forgotten in a few years. I doubt that is the case, and few people who have spent any time investigating the global impact of climate change believe it either.

What we are witnessing is the world that many have been predicting for years. If anything, it may have arrived earlier than anticipated.

Unless something radical is done, we had all better get used to the idea that what we’re seeing now will get much worse. The sight of people riding and walking around the streets of Vancouver wearing face masks to protect themselves won’t be uncommon. Neither will the air-advisory bulletins. The number of people landing in hospital emergency wards with respiratory ailments, as happened this week, will certainly multiply.

If this doesn’t wake people up to the unpleasant new realities descending upon us, nothing will.

This summer has certainly made me hope that climate change will be something politicians are talking about on the federal election campaign trail. I suspect I’m not the only one.

This may be an election where the issue plays a bigger role than ever before. One can hope anyway.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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