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What remained of a forest after the 2009 wildfire in Lillooet, BC, Ayden Harrison photo

The normalization of wildfires: An insider’s opinion

What remained of a forest after the 2009 wildfire in Lillooet, BC, Ayden Harrison photo

Part 3 – Summer Communications intern, Ayden Harrison, shares her experiences of the 2021 wildfires from her home in rural Lillooet, BC

In summer, every household knows to pack a go-bag. I live in the basin of a desert that borders a temperate forest. Dry winds pass through the community, and temperatures reach upwards of 45 degrees Celcius. When a heatwave comes, temperatures hit almost 50 degrees Celcius in Lillooet.

We’re usually socked in with smoke all summer, or at least for part of it. Sometimes waves of smoke come in and completely cover the sun, making it turn red. Growing up, I just assumed that was what everyone experienced. Didn’t everyone have a mental checklist of things to grab in an emergency evacuation? I didn’t think that it was strange to be constantly hyper-aware of emergency preparedness.

Ayden Harrison, Ecotrust Canada
Ayden Harrison, summer Communications intern, Ecotrust Canada, from her hometown, Lillooet, BC

In Lillooet, we plan for every worst-case scenario. My friends, family, and I share our locations at the beginning of the summer to know where everyone is just in case we get evacuated. Most times, wildfires take out power lines and you lose communication, so you must plan.

I don’t know if people who live in more extensive urban settings realize that wildfires happen every summer. Forest fires are a natural occurrence and play an important role in healthy ecosystems. In fact, they’ve happened over the last several thousand years at various scales and severities. Our conflict with this natural process happens when fires threaten life, property, and infrastructure. I have experienced wildfires every year for the last 19 years that I’ve been alive. It’s not going to stop, and climate change and industrial forest management practices, only increases the devastation and occurrence.

Helicopter over Lillooet, BC, during the 2009 wildfire. Ayden Harrison photoHe
Helicopters with Bambi buckets to put out the wildfire near Lillooet, BC in 2009.

Climate change makes everything so much drier so much earlier and it causes lightning storms to happen more frequently. That’s what caused the wildfire of 2009. Lightning struck the mountain and we all watched helplessly. My family and I were at the baseball diamond. I remember looking up and seeing lightning strike the mountain. The fire started immediately, and then there was the deafening sounds of helicopters with Bambi buckets pouring water on the fire. That’s how fast it happened. The wildfire spread throughout the entire mountain and almost burned down my whole town. I was standing in the field and looking at the mountain while ash rained down from the sky — massive chunks of charred trees fell to the ground. Those are moments that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. To some of us in rural and remote communities this is not an unfamiliar sight. You must rely on your sense of community and that together you will help each other survive through these more extreme climate events.

Those are moments that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. – Ayden Harrison, summer Communications Specialist

This summer, there are bulletin boards outside of grocery stores that get updated every two hours containing information on the wildfires. People will camp outside the grocery store, awaiting the next devastating update. This isn’t a new scene, but it has gradually worsened over the years.

Images from the 2009 wildfire in Lillooet, BC, Ayden Harrison photo
A wildfire exploded near Lillooet, BC, after a lightning struck in 2009.

If climate change gets worse, we’re going to see more wildfires more often, and more people will be affected by them. The fire that burnt down Lytton wasn’t a one-off occurrence. Williams Lake almost burnt down in 2017, and Fort McMurray burned down in 2016.

Wildfires happen more often than people would like to admit. It’s scary, and it’s terrifying, and it’s easy to get sucked into the whole climate dread, doom-and-gloom mindset. But I can’t afford to have that attitude. That’s a luxury I don’t have. Every summer, I make sure that my mental checklist includes knowing where all my emergency exits are, and a way out if my town starts to burn. I don’t have the privilege of pondering the existential dread of climate change. We have to act, and it’s not a choice.

Smoky skies over Lilloeet, BC. Ayden Harrison photo.
Smoky skies over Lillooet, BC.