Go to Site Index See "Articles" main page
9th January 2024

Wildfire season started early and hit hard for residents of the village of McBride, in British Columbia’s Robson Valley. Extreme drought conditions across most of the province had turned the surrounding forests into a giant tinder box, and the community was evacuated in early May under threat from the fast-moving Teare Creek fire.

In September, the community of 660 people entered into a second local state of emergency: The drought, unprecedented in living memory, threatened McBride’s water supply.

That emergency status remained in place in December, as the skies delivered no relief.

“We’re living with something we have not seen before,” said Mayor Gene Runtz.

Residents are still rationing water, and preparing for a miserable winter without snow. By now, the lodges and B&Bs are normally booked up with recreational snowmobilers who come to play in the mountains each winter – a key part of the local economy. But the mountains are stubbornly green, and paying guests are staying away.

“We’re going into another winter, just like the one before in that we’re just not getting the precipitation. And what we’re scared to death about is what that means for next year,” Mr. Runtz said in an interview.

Rock Bergeron, a long-time resident, is shaken by the changes he’s seen. His home fronts on the Doré River, a tributary of the Fraser River, where he has a well rather than municipal water service. He has been buying bottled water for drinking for months because the well water is no longer clear.

However, he says he is better off than many of his neighbours, who have no water at all and are losing their riverfront property to drought-fuelled erosion.

“I’m very lucky, it’s my neighbours who are losing their properties. It’s crazy. Because the water is so low, the land just collapses.”

Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, and 2023 brought unprecedented wildfires across Canada. A Dec. 12 report from the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service noted that those fires impacted air quality across North America, and contributed to hazy skies in Europe.

McBride’s mayor recalled just how close he and his community came to losing their town on May 5, when the out-of-control Teare Creek fire approached from across the Fraser River, covering five kilometres in just 15 minutes.

“We evacuated this town but we had people fighting fires in between the houses on this side of the Fraser,” he said. “I went over there to find out what was happening and there were people stomping on embers – I saw one lady with a broom, for God’s sake – nobody’s gonna move. Everybody’s gonna fight it.”

The wildfire emergency abated when the wind died down, and people were able to return home. There was little time for relief, however. Aerial surveillance of the watershed that feeds McBride’s water supply on June 1 provided warning of what was coming next.

“We usually have snow coverage on the mountain side, it’s there until maybe the end of July, sometimes it doesn’t even leave until the end of August,” Mr. Runtz said. “This year for the first time, there was no visible evidence of any snow left in the drainage on the mountains on June 1.”

Dominion Creek fills the small reservoir that has provided the village’s water since the 1920s. Once upon a time, the creek was glacier-fed but now it relies solely on runoff from the accumulation of snow in the mountains. This year, there is no snowpack and the creek has disappeared below ground.

The water restrictions means residents can’t wash vehicles, fill swimming pools or garden ponds, water lawns and gardens.

Mr. Runtz said he’s trying to stay positive on behalf of a community that is on edge. The village council is looking at plans to tap into the river higher up in the mountains, and they plan to consult with the community on a long-term water-conservation plan.

But no community in Canada was wishing harder for a white Christmas.