[Editor’s note: This story contains details about lives lost in wildfires and heat domes. We invite readers to take care as they read through this piece, in particular if they’ve suffered personal losses related to natural disasters.]
It was the bathtub that made me stop.
Coming around a gentle bend, I braked my truck — a 1998 red Chevy Blazer pulled out of a junkyard with a sunburnt, peeling hood and supposedly replaced transmission which would fail me in short order — in the middle of the empty road. A single, slim metal pole marked the edge of a short gravel drive. Presumably, it had once had a red reflector on it, the kind country people use to help mark their driveways in the dark, but the reflector was gone.
I put my blinker on and turned down the drive. I put the truck in park. In the passenger seat next to me, my dog, Herman, was panting. It was hot. He wasn’t looking out his window, but out my window. He seemed to be staring at what I was staring at: the bathtub.
Where there had once been a house, there was now only a blackened outline. It had burnt to its foundation, except for the slight rise of wall at one end, where a wood stove sat, still inserted into the fireproof brick, the chimney leaning, lopsided without the support of the rest of the building, rising up like the tentative arm of a shy child raising their arm in class.
There was no furniture or books left, no clothes or plates or toys. Possibly, had I gotten out and sifted through the ashes, I might have found nails or hinges or other pieces of metal, but I did not get out of the truck.
The feet of the beautiful old clawfoot tub had been blackened by flame, but was otherwise perfectly intact, as if it had simply walked itself through the ashes to that place and found itself standing there.
This was sometime in either the summer or early fall of 2018. I was homeless at the time, living out of my truck, and I was driving a lot in search of work.
I can’t remember now exactly how I got there, into that little rural network of roads that had once been a cache of farmers’ houses somewhere in the interior of British Columbia, I think near Clinton, or perhaps Lac La Hache. I was probably looking for a campsite, or had been taken on one of the wild goose chases Google Maps sometimes leads you down in rural areas. The fire had swept through perhaps a week or so before. Now, nothing was burning — there wasn’t much left to burn.
In 2018 there were so many fires I could have been anywhere in B.C. I saw so many fires, running feral and hungry throughout the province, that one fire blended into another.
In Salmon Arm the smoke was so thick I had to turn my high beams off at night. ln Naramata, a grey haze of smoke and ash blew in on the wind from across the lake, and when I blew my nose my snot was grey with it. In several places up and down the highways I passed through live fires, barely contained at the edges of the asphalt by vigilant crews in heavy protective suits, sweating and sweating in the terrible heat amid little flames that licked and burned the brush in the ditches nervously, as if the road were a river the fire was trying to find a safe place to ford.
The absurdity of the bathtub standing alone made the fires real to me in a way they had not been before — and that realness made them sad in a way they had not been before. Suddenly, I could see that someone, probably not very long ago, had lived a whole life in a house that was now just the shadow of a shape in this newly dead country.
I sat there in the truck for a few minutes looking at the tub. There were no squirrels chattering, no cicadas singing; there were no cats sunning themselves on stoops or dogs barking in yards; there were no birds, not a single bird, not even a magpie or a raven, which was perhaps the most unnerving thing of all.
And, of course, there were no people. All the people were gone, evacuated, and everything about them was gone too. Their houses, yes, but also the things they did in those houses, and the things they put in those houses, and the things they did with those things: kitchens where meals had been eaten and beds where people had made love and chairs where books were read and paths where morning walks were taken and back rooms where arguments were had and gardens lovingly tended and living rooms where marriages had dissolved and desks where school reports were written up and the tree under which a beloved pet might be buried — all gone.
All of it. It’s all gone.
Climate change — and climate crises — are real, and here, and very much getting worse.
It’s hot when it’s supposed to be cold. It’s cold when it’s supposed to be hot. When it is cold, it’s too cold, and when it’s hot, it’s too hot. There’s record snowfall, record landslides and flooding. Did you know what an "atmospheric river" was before last year? Because I — a science reporter and person who spends a ton of time in the backcountry — absolutely did not.
And that’s just here, in B.C. That’s not the mudslides in Yellowstone, the blue penguins dying of heat-related starvation in New Zealand, or the fact that the arctic is warming seven times faster than the global average — all events which were reported in just the past few weeks.
It’s easy to think of these near-cataclysmic events as forces of nature that threaten both human and animal life. What is not as easy to see is that the danger is not simply about being caught in a landslide or drowning in a flooded river or burning to death in a forest fire — it’s about how climate crisis has, is and will continue to collide with the crises of our own, more direct, consumer-capitalist manufacturing.
British Columbia, like much of North America, is in the throes of a gutting housing crisis. Unless you are wealthy, there is little housing to buy, and if you cannot afford to buy, you must rent at exorbitant and steadily rising prices, with little control over the stability of your housing and the conditions in which you live.
The cost of living is rising — a matter directly related both to capitalist gouging, spurred both by the pandemic and the climate crisis itself — with inflation devouring any supposed gains made by increased wages. About one million people in B.C. — around a fifth of the province’s population — don’t have access to a doctor, and there is a critical shortage of mental health-care service (unless you can pay). Food insecurity, high gas prices and shortages of basic goods like baby formula, tampons and some drugs, including children’s Tylenol, are increasingly common.
B.C. already has a large working-class population with unstable housing, little disposable income and poor access to medical care, who are unlikely to be able to afford sudden, unexpected expenses, like moving, sharp price increases in goods and services or major losses of essential possessions like furniture, cars or clothing.
So, as the shit of the climate crisis hits the fan, what the hell are working-class people supposed to do?
Where are we going to go when there isn’t anywhere left to go?
On June 30, 2021 — four days into the blistering heat dome gripping the province, a wildfire swept through the village of Lytton, and all but obliterated it.
What precisely caused the fire to start in the first place has yet to be officially determined. Both the Thompson-Nicola Regional District (in which the village lays) and the Lytton First Nation say they believe the fire to have been caused by a spark thrown from a passing train, but an investigation by the Transportation Safety Board found no evidence of this.
We do know, however, a few things for certain about the fire.
We know that, in the three days prior, Lytton — which is a BC Heritage site located in the traditional territory of the Nlaka'pamux (Thompson) people, who have occupied the region for over 10,000 years — was not only the hottest place in Canada, but the hottest place in Canada ever recorded, reaching
We know that the fire began less than two metres from the CN Rail track and that flames were reported approximately 18 minutes after a CP Rail coal train heading west passed through the area.
We know that hundreds of people in and around the village were forced to evacuate.
We know that all but 32 homes in the village were destroyed.
We know that two people died.
We know that even now, a year out from the fire, most people haven’t been able to return to the village, and that reconstruction isn’t likely to begin until September, a fact that became doubly clear as I tried to reach residents and municipal council members, the majority of them scattered across the province.
A major reason for the slow recovery process, says Jan Polderman, mayor of Lytton, is that the town isn’t just burned — what’s left over is toxic, a mess of burnt plastics and metals that were reduced to chemical ash when the fire ripped through the village. In order to begin the rebuilding process, all that contamination has to be removed and testing done to ensure it's safe for folks to live there again.
“Basically, we’re talking about $60,000 per property to clean up,” says Polderman. “A good part of those fees go towards disposing of the toxic material… they remove four inches at a time, and during that process some of it gets sampled… to see how deep the toxins have gone.”
“The problem is, no one’s insurance covers the cost of the cleanup, of the soil remediation and debris removal,” he says — if they had insurance at all, which many less well-off people didn’t. People who didn’t have a lot of money and were forced to leave their homes behind without insurance, or who were renting, are going to have a harder time coming back to the village — if they can return at all.
“It’s a big problem,” Polderman says.
“The thing about these rebuilds is, they usually take somewhere between four and eight years. The town costs a certain amount of money to operate, and three years from now, when the government funding runs out, the taxpayers of this town are gonna have to pay the bills,” he says. “That's gonna be a difficult situation.”
Once everything has been cleaned up and the houses rebuilt and the infrastructure — water systems and a new fibre optic cable for internet service, for example, Polderman believes people will come back.
In the meantime, though, things are hard — very very hard. The village has limited personnel and resources. Computer servers, which contained all their financial and municipal records, were destroyed in the fire, making applying for grants and keeping track of municipal affairs and the needs of citizens difficult. The town “basically had to start [over] on July 1 with a cellphone,” Polderman says.
Even if it’s possible to get everyone back into their properties, with everything cleaned up, by Sept. 30, that won’t mean things are just back up and running, he says. They’ll still need to wait for electricity, water and sewer services to be back online. There’s no housing for the workforce needed to do this work; there’s no housing, even, for village staff.
Polderman’s house is one of the few homes that remained standing after the fire. Though he doesn’t plan to run for mayor again, he currently finds himself one of the only residents left, trying to put his burnt-out town back together a little bit at a time.
“You feel for all the people, you know, who aren’t back home,” he says. You feel a little bit guilty that your house is still standing.”
While the high temperatures we saw last summer were unprecedented in many parts of B.C. and the North, climate change makes heat domes more likely to occur, and with greater severity — as I write this, more than 125 million Americans are under a high-heat alert as a heat dome smothers the southern U.S. Moreover, heat domes aren’t just incredibly uncomfortable — they’re deadly.
The heat dome killed at least 619 people in B.C. a year ago. But that’s not even the whole story — many of those who died shared an uncomfortable amount in common.
According to a report released June 7, 2022, by the BC Coroners Service, the majority of the dead were “older adults with compromised health due to multiple chronic diseases and who lived alone.” Specifically, 415 people who died were 70 or older, and 56 per cent of the dead lived alone. A large proportion had an underlying disability, with “heat-related deaths were higher among persons… [with] schizophrenia, substance use disorder, epilepsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, asthma, mood and anxiety disorders and diabetes, compared to the B.C. population.” Most of these people lived “in homes without adequate cooling systems such as air conditioners or fans,” in more “socially or materially deprived neighbourhoods than the general population.”
Put more simply: working class folk, most of whom were older and who were sick and needed extra help, died, often alone, in their shitty apartments in their shitty neighbourhoods, because they didn’t have air conditioning or some other place they could go to cool down, and either didn’t have anyone to care for them or the people they had to care for them also didn’t have the resources or money necessary to do so.
They died because they were poor, and often unwell, because it was very very hot, and there was either no place for them to go or they couldn’t get there even if there was.
Fill almost eight standard city buses with your working class great aunt clutching her antidepressant medication and your mother’s father who lives alone in that old apartment with just one window and the silverfish crawling about the tiles of his bathroom as he checks his blood sugar levels and the kind but frail — so, so frail — elderly woman in the apartment across from yours, who perhaps doesn’t speak very good English, who nonetheless always smiles at you in the morning when you leave for work, the outline of her colostomy bag gently visible through her shirt.
Fill almost eight buses with people like this, with these people who mean so much to someone, who had whole lives they lived before this final, scorching moment.
That’s who died.
That’s only the beginning of course. Nothing is getting better. The housing crisis, the price of renting, inflation, lack of access to care, stressed medical systems, inflation, just the cost of being alive is even worse than it was this time last year. As the houses burn and the oceans cook and the rivers flood and the mudslides come crashing down and what systems we have to deal with the fallouts get more and more stressed, there will be fewer places to go, fewer supports in place, and the people who will suffer — who are suffering now — are working class people.
Pinned between immense climate crisis and immense economic inequality, perhaps “where are we supposed to go?” isn’t the right question to ask — perhaps asking that question is actually an act of optimism.
The correct — more realistic — question may actually be: where can I go and live through this?
In the truck, the heat was terrible. My tank top was damp with sweat, clinging to my skin where my back met the vinyl of the driver’s seat. Next to me, Herman panted heavily, a length of drool clinging to the pink curl of his tongue. There was no air conditioning — it hadn’t worked when I bought the truck and it certainly didn’t work now. The only thing that kept us cool when we drove was the wind coming in through the windows. We needed to get moving again — to stay moving for a while — if we wanted to beat the heat.
That was something I thought about as I put the truck in reverse: being in constant motion, always on the road, always looking for the next place to work, the next place to get water, the next place to cool off, the next place to wash and cook and sleep. Those were already realities for me then. It was how I survived — although surviving and living are not the same thing.
If something isn’t done — if we don’t start responding to climate change as an immediate threat, if we don’t start understanding that each climate-caused crisis as something that will happen again, and soon, if we don’t re-examine our backwards capitalist values and address the economic and social inequalities currently crushing the working class — more people may find themselves surviving that way too. If they survive at all.
I backed out of the driveway, put the truck in gear and started down the burnt road again. In the rearview mirror the tub still sat, stark and uncannily serene. As I pulled away from it, I thought it looked like it would be hot to the touch.
I drove. The sun was still hanging over what was left of the tree line, high and white in the west. Whatever I had come here for wasn’t here, so I kept going. There was nothing else to do.