Rudyard Kipling famously observed that Alberta had all hell for a basement when he visited in 1910. Now, 105 years later, I wonder what he would have to say about the summer we have experienced here in B.C.
I went to bed in Naramata on Saturday night dreading the return drive to Creston, faced with the prospect of driving north through Kelowna and Vernon, then over to the Arrow Lakes, across the ferry and to Castlegar. The night got better when I checked my cellphone and learned that Highway 3 had reopened after three days of closure for the Rock Creek fire.
It has been part of the deal on visits to the Okanagan both this summer and last, sitting in the evening and watching fire activity. The deck where I stay at Summerhill Pyramid Winery in Kelowna has twice provided views across Okanagan Lake to West Kelowna, beyond which fires seem to have become a regular occurrence. Last summer I watched helicopters swoop down to scoop up water from that same lake, only from Naramata, where a hillside fire threatened to drop down toward the tiny and very compact community and winery-filled area.
As I drove home through Oliver, where fires were burning on the mountainsides, Osoyoos, where smoke from Rock Creek filled the air, Greenwood (where I joked with the lovely folks in the Deadwood Café that their “This is a smoke-free environment” sign was false advertising) and into Creston, where the night before Creston Valley firefighters had crossed the U.S. border to be ready if the fire that has been raging for more than a week started to move into Lister and West Creston, I thought about Kipling. I also thought about how these events bring out the best and worst in people.
On Friday evening I read a Facebook post that repeated a report from an unknown source that a winery on Black Sage Road near Oliver had burned to the ground. Shortly after came a similar report about a different winery. On that same night, a number of people received calls that Lister was being evacuated. None of those news items had a lick of truth to them, proof that idiots are alive and well, starting and spreading rumours with impunity.
But it was impossible to ignore the fact that, idiots (including those who drive into damaged areas to satisfy their curiosity and more modern ones who fly drones into fire zones, grounding air response efforts) aside, these events highlight the value of a well-organized society that co-ordinates responses and prioritizes needs. It seems almost miraculous that the hundreds of fires burning around the province haven’t caused even more destruction to human settlements. The 30 residences burned in the Rock Creek area are the first this year, to my knowledge.
We’ve been lucky here in the Creston Valley, though it might not seem like it with smoke-filled air inflaming respiratory issues and reminding us that danger is not all that far away. But with water levels at historic lows and tinder dry interface areas surrounding our communities, we are incredibly vulnerable, as are others throughout the province. But in those communities are firefighters and resources at the ready, heading out at each report of fire. Anyone want to complain about the tax dollars that support those services now?
I thought it was especially heartening when I learned that firefighting crews raced from the Creston Valley to the Rykerts border crossing on Friday night, as winds threatened to push the Parker Ridge fire north and into our own communities. The border at the U.S. can seem like a barrier at times, but that co-operation between our countries can be organized so quickly is comforting.
With Environment Canada already predicting similar weather for next year, and even climate change deniers like our prime minister grudgingly admitting that our environment is morphing at a rapid pace, grey might become the new blue during the summer months, when smoke-filled air dims skies, reduces visibility and hampers breathing.
Many of us in this province believe we are living in an earthly heaven, even at this short distance from Kipling’s “all hell” (the reference was to the vast gas reserves around Medicine Hat, which he visited). The fires that dot the province, though, even as we are only early into the traditional fire season, are reminders that our heaven can turn into horror with the crack of a lightning bolt or the casual tossing of a cigarette from a vehicle. They should also give us cause for gratitude that we have services and resources that work to protect us, and firefighters who willingly go into danger on our behalf.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.