Disappearing into British Columbia’s wild places, and covering happenings in Canada’s “lotus land,” have been summertime adventures of mine for half-a-century. The climate crisis has now altered life and land. B.C. has heated up, dried out, caught on fire in the summer, and flooded in fall.
The past few days have put a visitor’s loss in focus, and focused concern on friends. Years ago, I journeyed to Kelowna for a feature on Ogopogo, the sea serpent supposedly resident in the depths of Lake Okanagan. We stayed at the weathered Okanagan Lake Resort, and paid a visit to longtime B.C. Premier W.A.C. “Wacky” Bennett.
The old resort was consumed by fire this week, falling to a 25,000-acre blaze that has jumped Lake Okanagan, triggered evacuation orders to 15,000 and caused current Premier David Eby to declare a province-wide state of emergency. “Please do not travel into fire areas,” Eby said Friday night. Normally, Lake Okanagan is one of Canada’s most popular summer destinations.
To the south, another big wildfire has threatened border towns on Lake Osoyoos. The upper valleys of the Okanagan and Similkameen Rivers are home to Canada’s only desert, along with 8,000-foot peaks of Cathedral Provincial Park and our Pasayten Wilderness. Rattlesnakes will buzz you in the Ashnola River valley while mountain goats and ptarmigan reside on ridges far above.
Seventy people had to be rescued Wednesday from Cathedral Lakes Lodge, which claims to be Canada’s highest-elevation hostelry. Crews cleared an evacuation path down to the town of Keremos. Two blazes have combined to form the Crater Creek fire, forcing evacuation of a provincial park and land set to become Canada’s newest national park.
British Columbia has long boasted that it has the mellowest climate in the Great White North. Rainforests are a feature, not only on Vancouver Island and the coast, but in the Interior Ranges where storms come up against two-mile-high peaks of the Purcells, Selkirks, and Rocky Mountains.
Now the climate crisis is felt everywhere. Enormous fires are “the new normal” in words of former B.C. Premier John Horgan. Some years back, I rafted the Stikine River from Telegraph Creek, B.C. down to Wrangell, Alaska. It was a very wet trip with vigorous glaciers feeding cold, swollen rivers. Yet, a few years later, drought and heat sparked a fire that burned part of Telegraph Creek.
If you fly north from Vancouver to Terrace, the uplifting view out the left window is of icy Coast Range peaks capped by 13,160-foot Mt. Wadding, a mountain so formidable that it has played K2 and Nanga Parbat in such movies as Seven Years in Tibet. Out the right window, however, you see gray (dead) and orange (dying) lodgepole pine forests.
Winters on the Chilcotin Plateau in south-central B.C. have become slightly milder in recent years. This has allowed increased reproduction of the mountain pine beetle, a tiny creature the size of a grain of rice, which attacks trees. Beetles have infected 20 million hectares (or nearly 50 million acres) of trees, half the volume of commercial lodgepole pine in the province. And when forests die, they burn.
A group of us traveled to Mt. Assiniboine in the Canadian Rockies five years ago. We left a Seattle choking in smoke from B.C., smoke that did not once lift in a 670-mile trip to Canmore, Alberta. It was thickest driving through Kootenay National Park, where a big still-smoldering fire had crossed the highway. The fire had burned up the trail into Floe Lake and the Rockwall, one of the premier alpine back trips of North America. (A brief storm did clear the air on the day we went in to Mt. Assiniboine Lodge.)
One blaze this year, the Donnie Creek fire, has consumed 1.4 million acres in northwest B.C. It is the largest fire in British Columbia’s history and larger in size than the province of Prince Edward Island. That fire has not come close to population centers; by contrast, fires around Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories have forced evacuation of Yellowknife (pop. 22,000), its largest city.
During the 2021 heat dome, the village of Lytton in the Fraser Canyon recorded Canada’s highest-ever temperature at 49.6 degrees Celcius or 121.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Two days later, Lytton burned to the ground.
Nor is this the first fire to threaten Kelowna. We are at the 20th anniversary of the Okanagan Mountain fire, a lightning-triggered, 66,000-acre blaze that displaced 33,000 people, burned 239 homes, and caused $300 million in damage.
The 2021 heat dome was felt even in high places. The trail to fabled Berg Lake circles 12,972-foot, glacier-draped Mt. Robson, highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. The trail passes through rainforest as thick and damp as anyplace on the coast. The mountain is a weather maker. Such was the heat dome, however, that much of its glacial ice melted. Coupled with a sudden thunderstorm, the result was a flood down the Robson River which wiped out much of the trail and its bridges. Hikers had to be reached and evacuated, and much of the fabled trail remains closed.
The province’s populated Fraser Valley was hit big time in November of 2021 by a concentrated, unprecedented, days-long “atmospheric river” off the Pacific. The long-ago-drained Lake Sumas came back into being, the TransCanada Highway was flooded, and for a time Vancouver was cut off by land from the rest of Canada. The Coquihala Highway, main road access to the B.C. Interior, was badly damaged.
The summer of 2023 has turned into a season, in Eby’s words, of “unprecedented” challenge of heat, drought, and fire. The McDougall Creek fire, threading Kelowna and West Kelowna — combined population, 186,000 — grew tenfold Thursday night. “We fought 100 years’ worth of fires all in one night” Jason Brolund, West Kelowna fire chief, told a briefing.
The specter of fires burning on ridges above the lake is alarming to residents and saddening to we outsiders who love the place. I once had a delightful stay at an Okanagan Lake resort. The Cathedral Lakes Lodge is a hiker’s base known for gold larch trees in the fall. My family bunked in Lytton once as my journalist mother wrote about the nearby Hells Gate Fishway that allowed the Fraser River’s great salmon runs to bypass rapids. We later watched sockeye salmon spawn upstream in the Adams River below Adams Lake.
As I write, Highway 1 (the TransCanada) is closed between Hope and Lytton. Evacuations have been ordered along lower Adams Lake, site of a 25,000-acre fire that has been flaring up.
I sorted old slides recently of hikes into Earl Gray Pass and Lake of the Hanging Glacier in the Kootenay. The pass is flanked by peaks and glaciers. The trail passes a low elevation meadow where we surprised a grunting ursine creature which took off up the hillside.
Of Lake of the Hanging Glacier, hard to think of a more beautiful place on the planet, flanked by larch forests, beneath 11,000-foot peaks, with the outlet stream turning into a cascading waterfall. One gets there by a long rough approach up the Horsethief Creek road followed by a stiff, steep like.
Not possible this year. A big fire has spread out of Horsethief Creek to Toby Creek, access to the Panorama ski resort and Earl Gray Pass trailhead. Panorama has been evacuated. The fire has threatened but not yet reached Invermere, the lovely lakeside town on the upper Columbia River where I recovered from hikes.
The province’s moniker has long been “Beautiful British Columbia.” It surely describes the lure of the place, across Canada and from across the Pacific. Backpacks in its mountains, camping on its beaches, rafting rivers and lodge stays have been a big part of this Yank’s life. I even watched my partner arrive by helicopter as a campsite on the remote Turnagain River. She arrived in time to join the wolf howl that night.
“Climate events” are now stressing and changing the province, and not for the better. “The new normal” means fires consuming forests, vast beetle kills, evacuations, and smoke which pays no respect to the 49th Parallel. Hundred-year fires are being fought in one night.
Don’t let anybody tell you that global warming is not having vast and dire impacts in our temperate, livable corner of the planet.