Smoke is seen rising in front of the sun as a wild fire burns near Little Fort, B.C. Tuesday, 11 July 2017. More than 100 wild fires were burning throughout British Columbia, forcing thousands of residents to be on evacuation standby. Photo: Jonathan Hayward, The Canadian Press

By Mika McKinnon
11 August 2017

KAMLOOPS, British Columbia (New Scientist) – It’s stiflingly hot and I’m trapped inside a dome of smoke. I know I’m in a river valley nestled within mountain ranges, but the visibility is cut so low that I can’t see any of the dramatic peaks that dominate landscapes across British Columbia. It’s the worst documented wildfire season since 1958, and smoke is an omnipresent and unwelcome companion.

“We have a very significant fire season unfolding,” says Daniel Perrakis, a fire research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service. It’s the largest area burned since the advent of modern fire-suppression and fire-management techniques, he says. Over 591,000 hectares have burned so far.

I’ve left my coastal home in Vancouver and travelled inland to support evacuations, joining the swarms of volunteers being deployed to help.

Shifting winds and an atmospheric wall of high pressure have funnelled smoke into the city of Kamloops, filling the air with an unprecedented 684.5 micrograms of fine material per cubic metre. That’s nearly 70 times more than the World Health Organization’s guidelines for safe exposure limits.

My eyes sting when I walk outside, and I feel the throb of a headache coming on if I dare walk as far as the street corner. Even indoors, the smell of smoke whispers through the ventilation systems until it clings to everything. I woke up to ash on my toothbrush, large black flakes against white bristles.

The story of how things got like this is a slow-speed disaster of climate change, a beetle invasion, and the unintended consequences of well-meaning policy gone wrong. [more]

Fighting to breathe in the face of Canada’s wildfire emergency

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