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We hear about the record-setting amounts of water that Hurricane Harvey dumped on Houston and other Gulf cities and towns, mixing with petrochemicals to pollute and poison on an unfathomable scale. And we are witnessing, yet again, the fearsome force of water and wind as Hurricane Irma — one of the most powerful storms ever recorded — leaves devastation behind in the Caribbean, with Florida now in its sights.
Yet for large parts of North America, Europe, and Africa, this summer has not been about water at all. For years, climate scientists have warned us that a warming world is an extreme world, in which humanity is buffeted by both brutalizing excesses and stifling absences of the core elements that have kept fragile life in equilibrium for millennia. At the end of the summer of — with major cities submerged in water and others licked by flames — we are currently living through Exhibit A of this extreme world, one in which natural extremes come head-to-head with social, racial, and economic ones.
Reachable only by ferry or floatplane, this is the part of the world where my parents live, where my son was born, and where my grandparents died. Though it still feels like home, we now only get here for a few weeks a year. The government of Canada weather site predicted that the next week would be glorious: I pictured hot afternoons paddling in the Pacific and still, starry nights. But when we arrive in early August, a murky blanket of white has engulfed the coast and the temperature is cool enough for a sweater.
Forecasts are often wrong, but this is more complicated. Somewhere up there, above the muck, the sky is clear of clouds. The sun is particularly hot. Yet intervening in those truths is a factor the forecasters did not account for: Enough smoke has descended to turn the sky from periwinkle blue to this low, unbroken white. Enough smoke to transform the sun itself into an angry pinpoint of red fire surrounded by a strange halo, unable to burn through the relentless haze.
Enough smoke to blot out the stars. Enough smoke to absorb any possible sunsets. At the end of the day, the red ball abruptly disappears, only to be replaced by a strange burnt-orange moon. The smoke has created its own weather system, powerful enough to transform the climate not just where we are, but in a stretch of territory that appears to cover roughlysquare miles. And the smoke, a giant smudge on the satellite images, respects no borders: In the age of fakenews, this is fakeweather, a mess in the sky created, in large part, by toxic ignorance and political malpractice.
Up and down the coast, the government has issued air quality warningsurging people to avoid strenuous activity. Beyond a certain threshold, fine particulate matter in the air is officially unsafe, bad enough to cause health problems.
The air in parts of Vancouver is three times above that safe threshold, with some smaller communities on the coast significantly worse off. Elderly people and other sensitive populations are being urged to stay inside — or, better yet, to go somewhere with a decent air filtration system. One local official recommends a trip to the mall. Smoke from wildfires burning in central British Columbia shrouds the north shore of Kamloops on Monday July 10, At the epicenter of the disaster, where the flames are closing in, the air quality is far worse.
Anything over 25 micrograms of fine particulates per cubic meter is considered unsafe. Kamloops, the city currently housing many of the evacuees, averages That rivals Beijing on some of its very worst days. Airlines cancel flights, and people suffering from breathing problems reportedly pack emergency rooms.
Since this disaster began, some separate fires have ignited, forcing, at this point, some 50, people to evacuate their homes, according to the Red Cross. In early July, the government declared a rare state of emergency and by the time we arrive, it has already been extended twice.
Hundreds of structures have been razed, some whole communities, including indigenous reserves, have been mostly reduced to ash. So far, roughly 1, square miles of forest, farm, and grassland have burned. I call a friend in Kamloops. Since the new year, and the new U.
I wrote a book in a blur, then toured with it. And my husband Avi and I helped start a new political organization. It was the finish line albeit a temporary oneand we fully planned to collapse on it. It was also the way we kept our 5-year-old son Toma in the game. On cold nights in the east, we mapped out the forested walks we would take, the canoe trips, the swims.
We imagined the blackberries we would pick, the crumbles we would bake; we listed the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and old friends we would visit.
Which may be why I am a bit slow to clue-in to the seriousness of the fires — and the smoke. By evening, I announce that it will blow over by morning, revealing at least a glimpse of actual sky. For the first week, I greet each day hopefully, convinced that the drab light peeking through the curtains is just morning mist. Every day I am wrong. The placid weather forecast that seemed so promising before we traveled turns out to be a curse.
Sunny, windless days mean that the smoke, once it is upon us, parks over our heads like an unmoveable outdoor ceiling. Day after day after day. My allergies are going nuts. I bath my eyes in drops and pop antihistamines well beyond the recommended dosage. Toma breaks out in hives so severe he needs steroids. I keep taking my glasses off and cleaning them, rubbing them first with my shirt, then a microfiber cloth, then proper glass cleaner.
Nothing makes the smudge disappear. Smoke obscures the sun as a helicopter carrying a bucket battles the Gustafsen wildfire near Mile House, British Columbia, on Saturday July 8, A week into the whiteout, the world begins to feel small. Life beyond the smoke starts to seem like a rumor. I learned to love the steely beauty, the infinite shades of grey chiseled in the mountains. The low sky and the movement of the mist.
But this is different. Smoke is a little different. In part because you know that you are not breathing pollution from power plants or exhaust from cars but rather trees that were very recently alive. You are breathing in forest. I decide that the animals are depressed. The seals seem to pop their heads up in a purely utilitarian fashion, just to take a breath and then disappear again beneath the gray surface. They do not play. The eagles, I am convinced, are flying for function, not fun, no soaring or wind surfing.
I email a friend in Seattle, a prominent environmentalist, to ask him how he is faring in the smoke. He reports that the birds have stopped singing, and he is mad all the time. This part of British Columbia, technically a temperate rainforest, is a tinderbox. So far this summer, less than half an inch of rain has fallen. The forest groundcover, usually moist and squishy, is yellow and desiccated and crunches underfoot. You can smell the flammability. The roads are lined with yellow signs announcing a total ban on open fires.
Every time we turn on the radio, we hear warnings, increasingly frantic, about open fires, cigarettes tossed out of cars, and fireworks. Two years ago, a serious blaze threatened part of the coast about 20 minutes from here, taking the life of a local man who was helping to fight the flames. The Sunshine Coast has a year-round population of 30, people served by a single highway that ends in a ferry dock.
So what the hell does an emergency evacuation look like in a place with no roads out? Nine days into the whiteout, some terrible news arrives. A farmworker in smoke-choked Sumas, Washington — less than a mile from the Canadian border — has died in a Seattle hospital.
Honesto Silva Ibarra came to the U. He was 28 years old and had been picking blueberries at Sarbanand Farms, owned by California-based Munger Farms, when he started feeling sick. Some workers had fainted on the job, they told reporters. The company also claims it did all it could to save him. After Silva was hospitalized, workers staged a one-day strike to demand answers and better conditions. Sixty-six of them were immediately fired for insubordination.
They found themselves without means to get home to Mexico and without payment for their final days of work. But they did not get their much-needed jobs back. North of the border, there are similar reports of temporary farmworkers fainting and becoming sick on the job, with smoke apparently playing a role.
And advocates point out that, rather than being looked after, their sponsoring employers often send sick workers home like defective goods. We learn the same lesson over and over again: They take pre-existing divides and deepen them further, so the people who were already getting most screwed over before the disaster get extra doses of pain during and after.
We know a fair bit about how that looks during storms, such as Katrina, Sandy, Harveyand Irma. We understand less about fire. They were promptly sent home. We also know, as with floods, that our media gives far more coverage to house pets rescued from wildfires in the U.