Living with wildfire risk is a day-to-day preoccupation.
Jane Shaw, in British Columbia, shares the reality of living in a country on fire.
In March 2008 in England, there was a thick, heavy fog that didn’t lift for nine days. Not seeing more than a few metres for days on end was disconcerting and unsettling – the world felt wrong, and oppressive.
That’s what it’s like when the sky turns orange. Everything glows. The trees look wrong; the sun looks wrong. The birds go quiet. The layer of dust – which coats EVERYTHING – compounds that, so your nose and lungs start screaming what your eyes and ears are already telling you.
Living in the smoky skies is odd – but the smoke recedes. It’s easy to think that once the fires are out, the fear is over. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Living with wildfire risk is a day-to-day preoccupation. It sets you on edge. The plants you grow, the water you use – everything is governed by fire. Walking across the brown, crispy grass in the garden reminds you of how vulnerable you are. Last week a boat caught fire in the harbour. The community’s reaction to the plume of smoke was a telling tale of how on edge everyone is.
When you see someone smoking, it’s the equivalent feeling to the early days of the pandemic, when you saw someone in the supermarket coughing, with their mask around their chin. It’s stressful. You get annoyed and frustrated, you feel helpless about the ignorance of others. It does nothing for community.
Last summer our fire service started triaging houses. Much like doctors had to make hard, unpalatable decisions during the pandemic, the fire services in BC learnt the hard way over the last couple of years that they can’t fight everything, everywhere. So last year, they assessed all the houses, working out which would be prioritised and which would be left to burn.
It’s not a comfortable feeling, wondering which list you’re on – after each windstorm, guiltily and hurriedly clearing the fallen branches so that your garden looks well maintained and ‘fire smart’.
One of the things that bothers me the most is the ‘Grab’n’go’ bag. It really pains me to have rucksacks, clothing, torches and power banks that (hopefully) remain unused. We’re lucky to keep ours in a cupboard where they’re ‘out of sight, out of mind’ – but they’re still there, reminding me of the fragility of our home and lives.
The wildfires are already slipping from the news. But even when the flames are quashed, they never slip from your mind. This, perhaps, is what most people don’t yet appreciate. Experiencing extreme weather brings a constant uncertainty and vulnerability – that’s every bit as unsettling as the sky turning orange.