Wildfires burn near Pinder Creek, on the only access road to Zeballos. Photo by David Gordon Koch/Campbell River Mirror

On the road to the front lines of the climate crisis

Zeballos fires signal the chaos and anxiety that comes with climate chaos

As news emerged last week that Zeballos, a small logging village, was under an evacuation alert due to wildfires, I prepared to drive there to report on the events as they unfolded.

It was a harrowing experience, but one that will likely become common as climate change results in extreme weather and incidents including wildfires.

The only road to Zeballos is currently threatened by a wildfire in an area known as Pinder Creek. When I drove that narrow and winding gravel road last Friday, I encountered a pair of medics stationed near the site of the fire, about 15 km south of the Island Highway.

They were there to provide medical services to firefighters, including the fallers who were creating a firebreak by cutting down trees near the roadside.

Helicopters overhead dropped buckets of water near the creek, a tactic that’s meant to cool down the terrain enough for ground crews to enter.

“Reminds me of Afghanistan,” said one of the medics as he gazed up at the choppers. He’d served overseas. “So many birds in the sky.”

Thick columns of smoke rose from the surrounding hillsides. These hillsides are incredibly steep, but logging companies have managed to harvest old-growth timber from their slopes, leaving behind patches of land where wildfires are now thriving.

Those cut blocks are covered in slash, the debris from logging operations, which serves as an excellent fuel for wildfires.

After the road reopened – crews were closing it periodically to allow the fallers to do their work – I continued along the narrow logging road until I reached the village of Zeballos, which was covered in thick smoke.

Dean Neville, an incident commander with the BC Wildfire Service, stood outside the village office, leaned over the rail and fixed his eyes on the burning hillside. He had just returned from a reconnaissance mission in a chopper.

Zeballos is located deep within a narrow inlet, surrounded by bluffs, and those steep inclines were on fire. It’s located in the “fog zone,” a narrow strip of the outer Island that’s normally excluded from campfire bans. Neville told me that it’s unusual for wildfires to flare up in this region.

He was trying to determine the “trigger points” for issuing an evacuation order for the houses along the bluffs. He told me he was weighing factors like whether smoke blowing on the north wind would reduce visibility too much for drivers, or whether the Zeballos Mainline road would be passable amid the Pinder Creek fire.

“That’s the only escape route for these people,” said Neville. He noted that fires were burning 300 metres from houses in town.

Back in Campbell River that night, I met a trucker who hauls logs on the hillsides of the Zeballos area. He was worried about whether he’d have a job to go back to after the fires were out.

It’s the kind of economic anxiety that’s becoming more common among people whose lives are affected by extreme weather and disasters like wildfires. Like the people who stand to lose their homes during increasingly intense wildfire seasons, they’re victims of climate chaos.

The BC Wildfire Service has said the Zeballos fire is trending away from the town. That’s good news, but wildfires have become a war with a front line that’s expanding every year.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which brings together the efforts of thousands of scientists from around the world, has identified “increased damages from wildfires” as an immediate and long-term risk for this part of North America.

In the long-term, that risk is especially high for the “livelihoods, health and/or economics” if global temperatures continue to climb. This information, which comes from the IPCC’s 2014 synthesis report, is clearly being borne out as wildfires rage across B.C. and elsewhere in the region.

While some “climate skeptics” continue to take up space, it’s clearly time to put the brakes on the emissions that are causing this climate chaos and change our relationship with the natural world.


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