Aftermath of the Elephant Hill Wildfire near Ashcroft, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Van Elslander

Though you may have gotten some time at the beach, summer in British Columbia was not quite what it normally is this year. From afar, the country watched B.C. shatter temperature records in a historic heatwave, while here in the Okanagan and throughout the province, heavy smoke persisted for weeks. Much of that smoke came from wildfires burning throughout the Southern Interior, with more than half the area burned in the Kamloops Fire Centre, which includes Kelowna and the Okanagan. As many of us tried to find any cold water or shade we could, fires burned through the towns of Lytton, Skeetchestn, and Monte Lake and forced evacuations in several more. But while this summer may have seemed apocalyptic, how did it compare to other years? And with that in mind, are we in store for more of the same in years to come?

Much of what happened this year was historic, particularly the intensity and length of British Columbia’s heatwave, which researchers with World Weather Attribution called a 1 in a 1000 year event. But surprisingly to some, 2021 did not break B.C’s annual wildfire records, burning 865,307 hectares (ha), 350,000 ha less than 2017, and almost 489,000 ha less than 2018 (for comparison, then entire Regional District of Central Okanagan – imagine Kalamalka Lake to Peachland – is 314,565 ha). That said, 2021 was a notable year, given the damage to communities and the constant heat and smoke.

But 2021, along with 2017 and 2018, provides a picture of the new wildfire paradigm B.C. is beginning to reckon with. Climate change dramatically increased the chances of a heatwave like we had, and is a major factor in the future of wildfire. Climate change is creating warmer, drier, and longer summers, not only affecting the amount of forest burned, but also the severity of wildfires, with more areas seeing almost complete burning of vegetation (not to mention the positive feedback effects, with burning forests emitting tons of greenhouse gases). These hotter fires are becoming increasingly common in the dry forests of south-central B.C, where low intensity wildfires are not only natural, but beneficial to ecosystem health and function. The historical mosaic of small, low-severity fires promotes biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and traditional Indigenous sources of food

And though climate change seems like the overbearing issue at hand, the state of forests in British Columbia is also a major contributor to our modern wildfire paradigm. Since the colonization of B.C. by Europeans, forest dynamics, particularly in drier ecosystems, have undergone a major shift. Prior to colonization, wildfires were frequent, widespread, and low intensity and promoted forests with mixed ages of trees and open understories (think easy to walk through). But since the mid-19th century, the dominant disturbance to forests has shifted with logging and tree-killing insect outbreaks increasing and wildfires being suppressed by provincial authorities. By reducing the frequency of small fires, and logging forests in clear cuts, forest management in B.C. has promoted more homogenous forests. After logging, the new trees develop into a forest of trees of the same size, age, and species. In much of B.C., forestry seeks to suppress deciduous trees like aspen (which are resistant to fire and part of a fire-adapted landscape) and promote economically valuable conifer species. The resulting forests are more susceptible to high-intensity fire, especially after outbreaks of insects (which are driven partly by the ubiquity of these forests and partly by climate change). As a result of this cavalcade of problems, you have a forest that is not only ready to burn, but ready to burn hot. 

Aftermath of the Elephant Hill Wildfire near Pressy Lake, 2017. Photo by Jonathan Van Elslander

The situation in the interior in 2017, 2018, and 2021 has certainly piqued many people’s interest in wildfires, even beyond our collective smoke-induced summer anxieties. But the threat of wildfires has a multi-pronged impact on life in southern interior B.C. Impacts from wildfire smoke are the most obvious on our personal health, with respiratory damage and aggravation being the most well-known. But beyond the smoke, wildfires can represent major trauma to our social systems. People living in evacuated areas experience noticeable mental health concerns following fires, including rising rates of anxiety and depression. Living in an area with repeated wildfire exposure can represent a major upset to people’s sense of safety, particularly in children.

Along with threatening homes, the fires also threaten our very concept of home. Belonging and sense of community are important impacts on health and mental health. Whether or not your home burns, wildfires are affecting people’s sense of community. In B.C., new homeowners or renters are not able to get insurance if they are in an area under threat of wildfire, a definition that covered nearly all of the Okanagan this summer, including UBCO and Academy Way. Additionally, with the rise of remote work from the pandemic, many people are seeking to move out of cities and into smaller communities, which is increasing the amount of people and homes in forested areas.

Despite the threats, the stress, and the convoluted causes of wildfires in B.C., there is hope. In the case of both climate change, and forest management, there is a general scientific consensus on what to do, though heated arguments over how to do it persist. Plus, while reducing our greenhouse gas emissions is a global problem, proper forest management is possible in local communities. Creating communities and forests that are robustly adapted to wildfires is possible, particularly through strategies like fire fuel management like prescribed burns. Indigenous nations throughout B.C. and Canada have used wildfire as a way to manage forests for centuries. By setting low intensity fires in the spring or fall, people can reduce the amount of fuel in the forest and reduce the severity of wildfires during the hottest months of the summer. This practice, which is well tested and effective around the world, was banned by colonial governments as a way of suppressing Indigenous culture.

However,  there’s hope for better forest management right here in Kelowna. The Okanagan Nation Alliance (ONA), the central government of eight Syilx (Okanagan) communities, is actively restoring prescribed fire to the area. Cikilaxwm – the Okanagan word for prescribed fire – is helping restore the open grasslands and low-density and mixed-age forests that have evolved in our area over millennia. By doing so, the ONA is leading the charge in helping create more resilient forests and protect communities from wildfires.

It may be daunting to be a new student in B.C. (or a long-time local), and think, “are summers like 2021 going to be the norm forever?” There is lots of evidence that if we don’t act, things may go that direction. But by no means do they have to. By learning about wildfires, forest management, and climate change, and by holding the powers that be to account, we can all help build happier and healthier forests and communities. Plus, if you’re not a political type, the B.C. Wildfire Service is always hiring… positions that will certainly help pay your tuition, if you’re happy to forsake most of those beach days.

The Elephant Hill Wildfire burns near Moose Lake, BC , 2017. Photo by Jonathan Van Elslander