Catastrophic Rhetoric: False Enchantments and ‘Unprecedented’ Disasters in British Columbia’s Punishing 2021

Pine and grass ecology Nlaka'pamux land

Pine and grass ecology, Nlaka’pamux land. Photo by author, 2019.

This article is reposted, in slightly edited form and with permission, from the first issue of Syndemic Magazine“Neo-liberalism and Covid-19.” Syndemic Magazine is a project of the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History at McMaster University. Its second issue, “Labour in a Treacherous Time,” is also now available.

By Mica Jorgensen

It came suddenly, violently tearing up lives and landscapes, subjecting countless British Columbians to an unprecedented state of emergency. And in its wake the province reels – survivors mourn the loss of millions of lives, human and non-human; communities struggle to rebuild infrastructure; the insurance companies calculate billion-dollar losses. Here was a “natural disaster.”

But — which one? Covid-19 might be a first guess. As of early 2022, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control, the province had suffered a total of 314,787 cases and 2,554 deaths (including the first registered in Canada), with 144 patients in critical care.

Alternatively, many British Columbians might focus on the November 2021 floods, whose immediate cause was an “atmospheric river” that dropped a month’s worth of rain in two and a half days, breaking down the sides of mountains, unloading avalanches of debris on highways, killing at least six people and about 1.3 million farm animals, and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Or they might focus not on floods but on drought. Kamloops recorded its second driest spring in 100 years, Vancouver went 53 days without measurable rainfall, and farmers in the Interior faced fields of shrivelled plants.[1]

Or they might remember the “heat dome,” a high-pressure ridge that from 24 June to 4 July transformed much of the province into an inferno, with temperatures approaching 50°C, during the “hottest week in Canadian history.” In Vancouver, the heat wave was considered a contributing factor in the premature deaths of almost 600 people. Millions of animals were also killed – marine organisms along the coast, wild animals in the Interior, and hundreds of thousands of farm animals.

As a wildfire historian, however, it was the forest fires, coming on the heels of that heat wave, that made 2021 particularly memorable for me. It was province’s third worst fire year ever, and the flames devoured an area larger than Prince Edward Island. Dry, hot conditions, lightning strikes, gusty winds all contributed to a province-wide state of emergency. On 29 June, the small town of Lytton made headlines after recording Canada’s highest ever temperature (49.6°C). The next day, wildfire devastated both Lytton and surrounding Nlaka’pamux communities.

Pine and grass ecology, Nlaka'pamux land

Pine and grass ecology, Nlaka’pamux land. Photo by author, 2019.

Each of these disasters – Covid-19, November’s floods, the June-July heat wave, the summer-long drought, and the forest-fires – was often viewed in isolation, as an “unprecedented” and “unexpected” exception, a “natural disaster.” In Australia, following the Black Saturday fires that hit the state of Victoria in 2009, fire historian Christine Hansen argued that “the use of unprecedented to describe the drama of the firestorm, when understood in a historical context, is not innocent but rather works against deepening environmental intimacy and renders large-scale fires ahistorical, out of time and out of place.” The language of unprecedentedness divorced the fire from normal reality by relegating it to a moment of insanity outside of the regular order of things. It also paradoxically shifted any exploration of what caused the fire to a generic ‘Deep Time,’ to humanity’s age-old patterns of interaction with the natural world, rather than to decisions made by identifiable people in historically specific contexts. Through the false enchantment of deep time, we are encouraged to skip over many other temporalities and decisions.[2] We are tempted to forget that “natural disasters” are events co-authored by human beings.

The forest fires were complexly generated events whose logic stems from the province’s long relationship with capital-driven natural resource extraction, enabled by the appropriation of land from Indigenous people. They were not unprecedented and only to a degree were they natural occurrences. Looking at this one element in BC’s challenging year helps us grasp how such a construction of events as distinct “disasters” works to strengthen the status quo. Conversely, treating these crises holistically as overlapping catastrophes co-authored by human beings entails calling that status quo into question.

***

Lytton is not the first community to go up in smoke in British Columbia. Industrial capitalism has been promising an end to catastrophic wildfire since at least the turn of the century. Ending wildfire, the argument went, was a matter of applying sufficient firefighting technologies at the right times and with sufficient expertise. New planes, radios, and moisture sensors would render fire “a legend of the past” – so long as the forestry industry was given free reign over the rational management of the woods.[3] A century later, the industry has largely failed to deliver on such promises.

Smoke over Prince George at midday

Smoke over Prince George at midday. Photo by author, 2017.

British Columbians have hardly been passive in their critique of industrial forestry and its ability to manage the land. Discontent with the forestry industry escalated in the 1960s and 1970s.[4] Forest fire management featured prominently, particularly because the industry used slash burning as a way of managing the explosive fuels created by clear cutting. Vancouverites regularly gasped in smoke-laden air, the product of slash burning all up and down the Pacific Northwest coast and the interior.

In 1970, Liberal leader Pat McGeer proclaimed, “we are never going to enjoy another Indian summer again until we put an end to slash burning.” He advocated a technical fix for the problem: a contest for a chipping device for logging waste that would reduce both the risk of forest fire and of nuisance smoke from prescribed burns.[5] Leif Norman Patterson, Chairman of the Columbia Valley Naturalists, pointed to the apparently hypocritical government position on cigarette smoke to make a point about British Columbia’s cozy relationship with the forestry industry: “Perhaps there are two kinds of smoke: Slash burn which means green capital transferred to provincial treasuries (and plenty of private and foreign ones too), and cigarettes, a luxury or habit of individuals that the government can afford to tackle.”[6]

The 1973 Eden Fire dropped a proverbial match into the fuel can of public disenchantment with its forestry industry. It provided considerable evidence of capitalism’s failures, seeming to confirm the dysfunctionality of the province’s forest service. The fire started in a prescribed burn on the Fly Hills where negligent logging company employees allowed hot summer winds to blow up embers into a wildfire that quickly spread down into the Glen Eden valley. There it destroyed sixteen houses and burned 16,000 acres. The promise that wildfires had been rendered passé through corporate planning and technology had been shown to be a hollow one. “Obviously your experts pulled a boner,” wrote one angry citizen to the Minister of the Department of Lands, “they just removed 15,000 acres of trees – with a slash fire gone berserk – not only the trees – but the aesthetics of this beautiful area is now destroyed.”[7]

Despite calls for transformation in the relationship between capital-driven forestry and the provincial government, the Eden fire ultimately changed little. A commission headed by the former Deputy Minister of Recreation and Conservation, along with three consultants from the University of British Columbia’s Forestry Department, wrote a long report on the fire. Responding to the public uproar, the Report reflected on the historical patterns of the industry and even broke new ground in weighing human well-being against capital accumulation.[8] Still, it concluded that slash burning remained the most economic and environmentally friendly way of disposing of the debris left behind by logging operations.

In the frustrated rhetoric that followed Eden, precedent was the point: in recruiting the events of the fire to argue against slash burning, individuals and the media needed to be able to link it backwards to previous examples to demonstrate the systematic dysfunctionality of their Forest Service’s resource management systems. For them, this was not an “unprecedented natural disaster,” but a foreseeable outcome of a flawed political and economic system – one that citizens could change.

Lytton is different. Instead of a product of specific choices made under a regime of industrial forestry, Lytton is described using the language of unprecedentedness. This unexpected ‘natural disaster’ – something beyond human comprehension, experience, or ability to predict – victimized local people. CNN’s headline from 5 July reads: “Unprecedented heat, hundreds dead and a town destroyed. Climate change is frying the Northern Hemisphere.” The Washington Post used it as an example of one of 2021’s most “extreme weather disasters.” Global News labelled it part of “a year of unprecedented weather extremes in B.C.” Apart from stopping global warming, there is no sense that there is anything people or their governments could have done to change the outcomes.

A more critical, historically grounded approach would emphasize Lytton’s many precedents and preconditions. Like the rest of the province, Lytton’s pine and grass ecologies were shaped significantly by industrial forestry since at least the turn of the twentieth century. Aside from alienating Nlaka’pamux people from their land and resources, colonialism physically put them in the path of the fire through historical structures such as the lay-out of reserves (which date back to the aftermath of the Fraser River gold rush).

In September 2021, Lytton First Nation declared a Covid-19 outbreak in the community. Most of the evacuees from the 2021 fire remain unhoused, staying in local hotels or with friends and relatives, often under conditions that made a mockery of social distancing. Like many Indigenous communities, Lytton First Nation has a special relationship to epidemic disease. The harms inflicted by the Lytton fire in 2021 mostly stem from these overlapping histories. Isolating the Lytton fire from its context, past and future, governments and industries absolve themselves of responsibility for its impacts and limit the possibilities for recovery. The “unprecedented” way of thinking skims across time as if two centuries of settler colonialism and industrial capitalism had not materially shaped the land and its people.

***

The language of unprecedentedness and the upholding of the status quo rob us of the tools we need to survive calamity. Fifty years after the Eden fire, we now know that prescribed burns have important benefits for forests, including eradicating invasive species, increasing the resilience of old growth forests, and returning nutrients to soil.[9] A once-scorned Indigenous tradition has, in Australia and Canada, been thoroughly rehabilitated. Critics of prescribed burning sometimes argue that Indigenous fire cultures are poorly suited to dealing with twenty-first century climate-change fuelled blazes. However, as Métis fire practitioner and Canadian Forest Service researcher Amy Christianson (among others) has argued, Indigenous fire cultures are adaptable.

Today, First Nations communities across British Columbia lead the prescribed fire movement along with foresters and ecologists. Proponents of prescribed fire argue that we will need to learn to live with smoke as the climate warms. Under prescribed fire regimes, smoke exposure can be carefully timed to align with good venting days to ensure lower levels of smoke inhalation among vulnerable populations – an important consideration given the vulnerability of our lungs under Covid-19. British Columbia’s wildfire strategy includes increasing the number and size of prescribed burning in partnership with First Nations communities with cultural burning practices.

This transformation can be judged a promising example of decolonial thinking. Yet unless it reckons meaningfully with colonialism and capitalism, prescribed fire risks entrenching a corporate way of handling forests as a “fact of nature” while becoming relegated to a limited role in mitigating “unprecedented” disasters. The harms stemming from British Columbia’s current wildfire regime are about much more than combustion. They arise from many factors, but capitalist forestry links them all. Framing cultural fire as the miracle cure for our modern fire regimes absolves settler colonial governments of responsibility for the mess created by industrial capitalism – while turning over the work of fixing it to the very people who have materially suffered grievously under such regimes.

***

In the discourse of unprecedentedness, the concepts of capitalism and colonialism are relegated to the margins. The idea that countermeasures might deliver a different future is also shunted aside. In a world of chaotically disruptive ‘natural disasters,’ what good could such countermeasures possibly do? This way of thinking about the impacts of the climate crisis is unhelpful because it accepts colonialism and capitalism as inevitable while rendering us helpless victims of processes beyond our control rather than active agents capable of mitigating harm. Or, as in the case of the Eden Fire and its upshot, we will imagine limited technical solutions to problems whose complex causation means such strategies are unlikely to succeed.

British Columbia’s multiple calamities in 2021 will doubtless continue to figure as neat allegories for the future, with Lytton foremost among them as the “poster-community” of the consequences of global climate change. People dying from the heat dome will be rendered as casualties of an unprecedented freak of nature disaster, not as yet more vulnerable people placed in the path of the centuries-long worldwide environmental transformation inaugurated by fossil capitalism. The millions of lives lost in the floods will be similarly judged, without reflection on the Liberal policies that settled so many on drained lands susceptible to floods. And Covid-19 will similarly be treated as a “natural disaster,” despite the growing volume of scientific evidence suggesting the links between zoonotic disease and capitalist forestry, agriculture, and social planning. In each case, the language of unprecedentedness takes us away from grasping the actual historical patterns, the precedents, underlying them all.

Geographer Farhana Sultana, drawing on the language of contemporary feminist theory, argues for the importance of intersectionality in pondering the multiple crises humanity confronts. Climate change, droughts, forest fires, floods, and Covid-19 are, each and all, to be explored carefully in their specific contexts. Yet they also intersect – as so many British Columbians learned in 2021.Can that hard lesson inform our disaster policies? Or will it, as before, be subsumed by the false enchantments of apocalyptic imagery, the simplifications of blaming “nature” for problems co-authored by humans, and the lure of the “unprecedented”?

Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian specializing in natural resource history and is currently based at the University of Stavanger in Norway.


Notes

[1] And some might recall even the tornado that touched down in Vancouver on 6 November, starting off as a waterspout over the Strait of Georgia and inflicting damage on the campus of the University of British Columbia.

[2] Christine Hansen, “Deep Time and Disaster: Black Saturday and the Forgotten Past,” Environmental Humanities 10, no. 1 (2018): 227, 234.

[3] “Fighting the Red Enemy,” Victoria Daily Times, 11 July 1925, 1.

[4] On the relationship between rising environmentalism and the forestry industry in British Columbia see Jeremy Wilson, Talk and Log: Wilderness Politics in British Columbia (Vancouver Press: 1998).

[5] “McGeer Wants Gov’t Prize for Slash Chewer Invention,” The Sun, 5 October 1970, 13.

[6] “No Smoke Government Inconsistent,” The Sun, 7 Oct 1971.

[7] GR-1227, Correspondence and other Material, British Columbia. Forest Service. Public Information and Education Division, British Columbia Archives, Royal BC Museum, Victoria.

[8] D.B. Turner, The Eden Fire, Report prepared for the Honourable Robert Williams, Minister, Department of Lands, Forests and Water Resources, Government of the Province of British Columbia, January 1974.

[9] A. Edwards et. al. “Transforming fire management in northern Australia through successful implementation of savanna burning emissions reductions projects,” Journal of Environmental Management 290 (15 July 2021) 112568; K. Hoffman et. al. “Conservation of Earth’s biodiversity is embedded in Indigenous fire stewardship,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 118(32): e2105073118.

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