The outdoor community has been bracing itself for a shorter winter season on account of climate change. But for an increasing number of outdoor enthusiasts exposed to wildfire, summer already ends with June.

A couple of weeks back while visiting my parents in British Columbia, a “deadly” heatwave, “hazardous” air quality, and a surge of the “extremely contagious” COVID-19 delta variant found me and my young family driving between “out of control” wildfires on a last-minute holiday escape headed for the coast – there only to find that the Reservation Bots had long since scooped up every campsite months ago the millisecond they became available.

Just a decade ago, the above sentence would have been completely incomprehensible. Yet here I am stuck in traffic with my young family, naively trying to recreate the carefree camping experience of my youth. Judging by the plates around me from Saskatchewan, Alberta, Washington, Oregon, and California, we’re not the only ones looking for the last corner of fresh, uncontaminated air in the Wild West.

I can’t actually find a better word for this situation than clusterf#%k. And perhaps a bit of profanity is actually in order as the factors that frustrate even simple outdoor recreation goals are now becoming too many and uncontrollable. As it slowly dawned upon us what we had gotten ourselves into, we responded first with disbelief and then panic – we had realized too late that the rules of the game had changed.

Trial by wildfire

A learning opportunity? I think so. The latest IPCC report predicts such extreme events will become more likely and will continue to both trigger and compound with other extreme events. So, to me this experience serves as both a small (and admittedly harmless) taste of things to come and an illustration of what we’re still doing wrong today.

The general consensus on what causes these wildfires appears to be a century of poor forest management, climate-change induced heatwaves and drought, and increased human activity in the outdoors. The variables all combine to create a perfect storm that now ravages the western states and provinces of North America nearly every year – with devastating impacts as the towns of Lytton BC and Paradise CA can attest.

I believe we can largely blame our collective tendency to put off the small but necessary discomforts of today even if this will likely lead to multiple out-of-control crises tomorrow.

Proposals to mitigate wildfire risks with controlled burns, for example, have largely gone unheeded. “What!? And have smoke in the spring and fall as well?’” Then, all it takes is one carelessly discarded cigarette butt or lightning strike for catastrophe to come on a scale that is impossible to control.

Similarly, the steps needed to take on climate change and avoid its worst impacts have been spelled out for us for decades. Yet we hear time and again that the costs of doing so on the scale required are just too high. It is as if we had a choice.

What is the alternative, deal with it later when we’re forced to, or when we’re more “in the mood”? It’s procrastination that got us here in the first place – we need to choose and implement the only option we really have before we run out of options altogether.

Climate lessons to be learned

Returning home, we drove through 30 kilometers of the black, smoldering remnants of a vast forest that had gone up in smoke during the two weeks we were away. Just one of 1,500 wildfires in British Columbia this year alone, and not a particularly large one at that. A few vacationers still dotted the beaches of my hometown trying to make the best of things. One paraglider being pulled behind a boat put a whole new spin on “having one’s head in the clouds,” flying just high enough to disappear into the dense smoke above.

The worst we can do is carry on as normal, thinking things will work out the way they always have. The rules of the game have changed. We did find a campsite eventually (and had a wonderful time), but this was a lucky break in a summer otherwise spent reeling in heatwaves, where over two-thirds of the air quality between July and August exceeded “Unhealthy” and where outdoor activity was “not recommended.”

Though it’s becoming clear we’re in for a tough century, I’m encouraged that it’s not all bad news: there’s a growing understanding that the changes required also involve massive opportunities as the benefits to both the economy and health become more and more apparent. Not in the far off future, but benefits we can experience today.

So, whether it be for selfish or altruistic reasons doesn’t matter – we need as many people, businesses and nations taking effective climate action and we need it now.

We’re beginning to run out of seasons.


Photo: Johanna Fraenkel

Jonathan Eidse
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