After a devastating wildfire season that reduced towns to ash and a heat dome that killed hundreds, climate breakdown is again threatening British Columbians, as torrential rain pummelled the province Monday, causing landslides and floods that destroyed key infrastructure and took at least one life.
The extreme weather was caused by an “atmospheric river” that carried water vapour from the tropics to B.C. The heavy downpour mixed with melting snow, leading to flooding. While the full extent of what factors allowed the emergency to unfold is not yet known, it is expected wildfires that burned healthy forests contributed by reducing vegetation that could absorb moisture.
“You can see in the Okanagan the effects of the fire would create very permeable areas, and then there are other places where the ash has fallen,” said Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) meteorologist Mindy Brugman.
Ash settling on the forest floor can impact the watershed by affecting how much moisture can evaporate. Wildfires also, of course, burn trees, meaning the roots are not absorbing moisture the way they previously did.
Wildfires “kind of change the hydrology of the whole network,” Brugman said.
Those tree roots also help reinforce the soil, and when damaged, landslides become more common. Landslides can dam rivers and exacerbate flooding. In other words, what B.C. is experiencing is a lethal mix of cascading climate impacts.
“We're on the edge of a big increase in these [storms],” said Brugman. “Some areas will get incredible amounts, particularly the Arctic and our West Coast, but even more so if you look at the East Coast like Halifax and even Ottawa,” she said.
Brugman described modelling from ECCC based on 3 C warming that predicts an increase in the frequency and severity of storms, particularly in the Arctic where the loss of sea ice is expected to lead to unprecedented Category 5 storms by 2080 that could last for more than a week.
“The same general rise in atmospheric temperature that allows for extreme heat in the summer also creates the capacity for the air to hold more water vapour that leads to these kinds of destructive atmospheric rivers and heavy rain events,” said climate advocacy group 350’s Cam Fenton.
“Literally the same places have been impacted … by these two ends of the climate emergency,” he said. “This summer the highway was closed, flames were jumping across the highway, and then [Monday], the rising water actually washed away and shut down that highway again.”
The Canadian Forces told Canada’s National Observer that 311 people were rescued from vehicles on the highway Monday after being stranded by landslides. That rescue mission is over while the RCMP takes up the search for people who still need help. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Forces confirmed B.C. has not requested further assistance.
Thousands of people were evacuated from Merritt and Princeton on Monday as the communities were submerged. Those communities are in Conservative environment critic Dan Albas’s federal riding, who said the extensive damage was made worse by inadequate water and sewage infrastructure.
“What we're seeing here is that the extremity of the situation was worsened because of the forest fire situation, and has led to much of the damage that we've seen here,” Albas said.
Albas said the first priority is making sure everyone is safe and supporting those displaced, but the province should undergo a review of its emergency preparedness. Further, Albas says the province needs to lead in an emergency like this.
“One of the challenges is that you have a series of localized crises that are being managed by municipalities; but the province does need to take the lead, in my perspective,” he said.
“The province is the one that has many emergency powers … it can request further assistance from the federal government. [Emergency Preparedness] Minister [Bill] Blair made it very clear to me that he's offered every support, and the province just needs to ask.
“So the province needs to do an assessment of what's required and take that leadership role we know we need,” he said.
Albas also said that with key infrastructure damaged, issues around supply chains will be ongoing.
At a press conference Tuesday, B.C.’s Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said after any extreme weather event, the province will undertake a review. When asked if the province should have taken further steps to warn people about the emergency, Farnworth said alerting took place locally, and there was plenty of warning “out on the media.”
“What we saw was an absolutely unprecedented deluge like we’ve never seen before,” he said.
“Obviously after any event such as this, the province assesses what [happened] and lessons [are] learned for the future.”
NDP emergency preparedness critic Richard Cannings said the federal government should put more money into its disaster mitigation and adaptation fund. That fund was launched in 2018 with an investment of $2 billion over 10 years. Budget 2021 added $1.375 billion over 12 years, with about 10 per cent of that extra amount earmarked for Indigenous recipients.
Cannings said there isn’t enough money on the table to help communities devastated by extreme weather, let alone enough to help communities prepare.
“If you're saying, 'I want $20 million to [prepare] our community so it doesn't get flooded,' you're at the bottom of the pile when there's a line ahead of you of communities that are trying to rebuild, [and] they're obviously a higher priority,” he said.
“So I think we have to really look at climate adaptation seriously and give it the attention — and most importantly, the funding — that it needs.
“Let's not wait for towns to be destroyed before we give them money,” he said.
John Woodside, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer