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Smoky summer: Why the impacts of climate change are no longer such a hazy concept on the West Coast

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On July 5, 2015, I woke up just after dawn. It was early, but I didn't feel tired or disoriented. I stepped out on my deck and saw it wasn't 5 a.m.-dim at all.

It was cloudy, and the clouds were orange.

I grabbed my phone, and after noticing the time -- 9:30 -- I saw my Twitter and Facebook feeds lighting up with "Smoke Posts."

"Crazy orange clouds in #yyj -- is this from a forest fire?"

"Apocalyptic morning in Victoria."

"What's up with the orange haze over the world today?"

Things looked even worse across the Salish Sea in Vancouver. I went about my Sunday -- eggs, coffee, then the Pride Parade. The smoke got thicker and I learned that a big fire on the Sunshine Coast had covered the entire region in its haze.

NASA satellite image of southwestern BC, July 5th, 2015 
NASA satellite image of southwestern B.C., July 5, 2015

The parade marched past the B.C. Legislature, which was set to reopen eight days later. The premier had called a rare summer session to pass legislation that will facilitate the fracked gas export (LNG) industry the government is controversially pursuing.

The Victoria Pride Parade 2015 and the B.C. Legislature under surreal orange smoke

We'd had the hottest, driest spring and early summer in living memory, and our forest fire season was off to one of its fiercest starts in history.

Ninety per cent of the annual firefighting budget had been used up by June: us West Coasters were getting a look at what others in the province had been living under for weeks.

No single event is caused solely by climate change, but a carbon-laden atmosphere increases the severity and frequency of both drought and wildfires. Though it cleared a little each day, the smoke (the itchy eyes, the hazey-red sunsets) stuck around for days.

The bizarre red sunset that persisted in Victoria for almost a week

The next weekend I was en route to Clayoquot Sound on the West Coast, where my organization supports a First Nation-led conservation project. 

Rare fires were burning on central Vancouver Island, and low in the smoky sky near Port Alberni we saw the world's largest water bomber, which had recently been brought out of retirement to support ground crews with an out-of-control wildfire.

The Mars bomber en route to an out of control wildfire on Vancouver Island

All this was unfolding in a rainforest climate on the notoriously wet coast. I'd never seen anything like it. I checked with my parents (both were born on the Island), and they hadn't either.

A few weeks later, the smoke has blown away from Victoria and the fires on the Island are under control for now. But the rest of the province still burns. On July 22, the day after passing her LNG bill that paves the way for unprecedented carbon pollution, the premier announced this fire season could cost B.C. taxpayers $400 million -- the most expensive year ever.

The B.C. Legislature, which reconvened in July to facilitate fossil fuel expansion in B.C., under smoke from climate change-intensified wildfires.

Compared to the deadly floods, drought-induced famines, rising sea-levels and the other calamities affecting people in marginalized communities around the world, the first obvious impacts of climate change that I've personally experienced haven't been devastating. Some are even sweet -- I'm eating blackberries from my parent’s yard, ripe a month-and-a-half early.

And while my life isn't threatened like the lives of millions, things are definitely different. Climate change has become a clear, obvious part of my privileged reality in the last couple of weeks, and I won't ever forget this.

It must now become a reality, and a priority, for our provincial and federal governments.

The acrid veil of smoke that could become the new summer norm in B.C.

Torrance Coste is a member of the Canadian Youth Delgation to COP21 in Paris, and a campaigner with Wilderness Committee. Torrance is based in unceded Lekwungen Territories (Victoria, BC). Follow him @TorranceCoste. Click here to support Torrance's work with the Canadian Youth Delegation

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