Federal candidates pitch new wildfire and climate plans to weary British Columbians

·5 min read
A helicopter carrying a water bucket flies past a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on Aug. 15.  (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)
A helicopter carrying a water bucket flies past a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on Aug. 15. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The wildfires threatening communities in British Columbia's Interior are now a dominant issue in this federal election campaign as candidates from all the parties try to win over voters in the province who are in danger of losing everything.

A number of communities in the riding of Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola remain under mandatory evacuation orders or alerts. The sound of helicopters dropping massive loads of water on hot spots is nearly constant.

But the fires are just part of the debate happening in the riding. Climate change is the other. Graeme George was forced to leave his home just north of West Kelowna two weeks ago because of the deteriorating air quality.

He said he's tired of hearing politicians saying they will act. Tired of the squabbling over whose plan is better, because the effects of climate change are clear.

"I just want the rhetoric to kind of stop, in the sense that — let's stop talking about it, and let's start doing things. Concrete things. Big changes."

Is the message getting through to candidates in riding like Central Okanagan–Similkameen–Nicola? The riding sits along the U.S. border in B.C.'s Interior, extending west from Okanagan Lake and taking in the towns of West Kelowna, Summerland, Princeton, Merritt and Logan Lake, as well as a number of Indigenous communities.

Let's stop talking about it, and let's start doing things. Concrete things. Big changes. - B.C. resident Graeme George

Liberal candidate Sarah Eves lives in Merritt, one of the towns under evacuation alert.

"So it's personal. I mean, obviously, you know, my car is packed. I'm ready to go," she said in a lively and contentious debate with Conservative Dan Albas and the NDP candidate Joan Phillip airing this weekend on CBC's The House.

Personal and political. Eves said climate change keeps coming up as an issue with everyone she talks to.

"There's other issues that are important to people in this riding as well, but they really want to know how we're going to address climate change, because the extreme weather that we're seeing, the fires that we're seeing — it needs concrete plans, it needs bold action and it needs ambitious plans, and the Liberal Party has that."

Albas, who was first elected in 2011 and served as the party's environment critic in the last Parliament, visited Merritt three times in the past week.

"And what I heard from people was anger and frustration. They're angry because they don't believe an election was necessary," he said.

"You know, this does open up a broader door to talk about what we need to do in this province, in this country, when it comes to climate change. Focuses of the provincial and federal government, at least under Mr. Trudeau, has been more on mitigation, and there needs to be an equal discussion about adaptation and resiliency for our communities."

Three of the four most destructive fires in B.C. history have been in the past five years. The only outsider occurred in 1958.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

This week, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, during a campaign stop in Vancouver, promised more federal assistance in training and equipping firefighters.

Phillip isn't quibbling with the promise of more help. But the NDP candidate insisted climate change is the real issue in a riding where people are losing their homes, years of memories and their means of livelihood.

"We are being very specific about what needs to be done in order to turn this climate crisis around, because we're talking about 154 years of irresponsible Liberal and Conservative governments that have done nothing about climate change and what it's doing."

All the parties have set out plans to combat climate change.

The Liberals are dramatically increasing the price on carbon. And they are promising more support for green technologies and to encourage production of electric vehicles.

The New Democrats are proposing more ambitious, near-term emission reduction targets than those set out by the Trudeau government. They would would also end government subsidies to the oil and gas industry.

The Conservatives pledge to create personal low-carbon savings accounts to discourage the use of fossil fuels. The party is also vowing to support clean technology and electric vehicles.

Elections are obviously about choices, not only among parties and their candidates, but which among the many issues — COVID-19 response, economic renewal and jobs, affordable housing, climate change — is the most important to voters when they go to cast their ballots on Sept. 20.

Kevin Hanna is a professor of earth sciences at the University of British Columbia's Okanagan campus. He's not only looking at the impact of the wildfires, but has had to help his mother near Merritt pack her most precious belongings in case of an evacuation order.

Hanna said climate change could well be the defining campaign issue in his province.

"I've seen people I've known for years struggle with being on the front lines of these fires, and I have no hesitation in telling you that this is what our future could look like very frequently. And not just here in British Columbia — but if you think about the forested landscapes across Western Canada, Ontario and Quebec ...," he said in a separate interview with The House.

"And I would encourage every Canadian to look at those (party) platforms carefully, decide what is realistically achievable, but what is also likely to yield a meaningful effect — you know, an effective outcome, sooner rather than later. And that's a mix of short-term solutions, but also investing in those longer-term solutions.

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