B.C. wildfires and floods show climate chaos is upon us

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      Last year, it was Fort McMurray that nearly burned to the ground.

      This year, wildfires are raging in many areas of the B.C. Interior, forcing thousands to flee from their homes.

      Things are so bad that the minister responsible for Emergency Management B.C., Todd Stone, has declared a provincial state of emergency .

      This came last night after 56 wildfires started earlier in the day in B.C.

      "Evacuation alerts and orders have been issued for Ashcroft, Cache Creek and Princeton," the province stated in a news release. "These are in addition to the evacuation orders and alerts issued yesterday for 105 Mile House and 108 Mile House. The extended weather forecast is calling for continued hot, dry weather, with risks of thunderstorms in many parts of the province."

      British Columbians are inspired by the courage of firefighters going toward the flames when the natural human inclination would be to run like hell.

      Last month, flood watches were issued for several rivers, including the Skeena, Bulkley, Shuswap, South Thompson, and Peace. 

      The South Okanagan became the sand-bag capital of the province as a large snowmelt and heavy rain caused flooding around Kelowna.

      These types of extreme weather events, as well as forest fires, have been anticipated by scientists as greenhouse-gas levels keep rising in the atmosphere.

      It's heartbreaking to see British Columbians lose their homes and businesses because of raging wildfires.

      For those who will return in the aftermath, their sense of security will likely never be the same as it was before this cataclysm.

      Similarly, those affected by flooding have learned brutal lessons about the downside of living on the waterfront in the 21st century. Foremost is reading the fine print on home-insurance documents.

      Smoke from fires can be deadly

      That's to say nothing of the health effects of climate change.

      In an essay called "Clearing the Air" in Reflections of Canada by the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, UBC researchers Michael Brauer and Chris Carlsten point out that poor air quality can be fatal.

      "The latest estimates from the Global Burden of Disease suggest nearly eight thousand Canadian deaths annually (approximately 3 percent of the total) are related to air pollution, ranking tenth among all risk factors for death in Canada," they write. "Air pollution causes more death than motor vehicle collisions, suicide, and HIV combined."

      Brauer and Carlsten note in their essay that "a warmer climate portends worsening of air quality".

      That's because smoke emitted from increasingly frequent wildfires "is clearly linked to increased deaths and exacerbation of lung disease".

      "Over a relatively short period of time, we have witnessed growth in the frequency, magnitude, and severity of wildfires in Canada, along with an extension of the length of the fire season," Brauer and Carlsten write. "Devastating fires in Fort McMurray and Slave Lake are recent examples, while generation of huge smoke plumes that affect major cities, and indeed large portions of the continent, are now becoming regular occurrences."

      Lower Mainland feels fire's effects

      This week in southwestern B.C., Metro Vancouver issued an air-quality advisory for the eastern part of the Lower Mainland and the Fraser Valley because of rising smog levels.

      This smog, a.k.a. ground-level ozone, is created when sunlight interacts with nitrogen oxides from fuel exhaust and volatile organic compounds from solvents.

      The Metro Vancouver news release cited the wildfire by Harrison Lake as a contributing factor behind the poor air quality because it increased particulates that people are inhaling.

      "Exposure is particularly a concern for infants, the elderly, and those who have underlying medical conditions such as lung or heart disease and asthma," Metro Vancouver stated. "If you are experiencing symptoms such as chest discomfort, shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing, follow the advice of your healthcare provider. As we are in the summer season with warm temperatures, it is also important to stay cool and hydrated. Indoor spaces with air conditioning may offer relief from both heat and air pollution."

      The last time it rained in Vancouver was June 18. We're getting used to extended summer periods without precipitation. But it can also be harmful to our health.

      Next government can be proactive

      The bottom line is that the incoming NDP government is going to face major challenges dealing with the consequences of climate change. 

      There need to be more libraries, community centres, and other air-conditioned facilities identified as cooling stations. 

      We need better monitoring of the elderly, who are more susceptible to death than the general population from heat waves and poor air quality.

      And regional districts and the provincial government must always take air quality with the seriousness it deserves, given its potentially fatal consequences. Metro Vancouver deserves credit for not losing sight of this.

      In the meantime, the health risks of climate change can be cited to justify raising carbon taxes to discourage consumption of fossil fuels.

      It shouldn't be difficult for the next finance minister to offset a higher carbon tax with help for lower and medium-income British Columbians who face higher fuel bills.

      We also need a new health minister who understands connections between climate change and human health.

      We need an energy minister eager to promote solar, wind, and tidal power.

      And if Premier-designate John Horgan really wants to send a signal to the public and bureaucrats that he's concerned about a warmer planet, he will name a minister of climate change, perhaps in combination with environment, as Justin Trudeau did.

      These recent fires are horrible for everyone affected. Those people urgently need help now. And firefighters should get all the support they require to address the crisis.

      But we also have to adapt for the future because climate chaos is already upon us. Anyone who claims otherwise is, quite simply, an intellectual vandal.

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