British Columbia·Footprint

Record-breaking wildfires and climate change force B.C. non-profits to adapt

Climate change is altering more than just the landscapes of B.C., it's changing how non-profit and community groups do their work in the province's Interior.

Groups say they're now expecting — and preparing — for frequent disasters

Kamloops in B.C.'s southern Interior is engulfed in a cloud of wildfire smoke in 2017. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Bonnie McBride spent most of the summer of 2017 sleeping outside in a park in downtown Kamloops, B.C., helping to care for hundreds of pets that had been forced out of their homes because of wildfires plaguing the province's southern Interior.

Her organization, Four Paws Food Bank, will never put itself in that position again, she says.

"We didn't feel like we could accomplish what we did in 2017 effectively again because we don't have the resources,"she said. 

That's why Four Paws has decided it will not have a formal role in any wildfire response in the future.

Four Paws Food Bank, the Kamloops area's only food bank specifically for pets, is one of many non-profit organizations in the community making changes to how they operate based on the growing realization that events like floods and fires are becoming more common and severe.

After two years marked by major climate disasters, many community groups are being forced to adapt. That's something that Amy Baskin of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Kamloops welcomes.

"We're acknowledging that climate crisis is real. We want to do our part in trying to not contribute to that and then support and build up people's resiliency in the case of it," said Baskin, a community educator with the CMHA in the city.

Four Paws president, Bonnie McBride says her organization will not have a formal role in any wildfire response in the future because they don't have the resources to do so. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

The organization has changed its programming to reflect the likelihood of regular wildfires in the region. For instance, it no longer offers training in the summer because of the risk that homes will be evacuated.

"This is the first year where we began to talk as if fire season was going to be a thing," Baskin said.

The content of the programming has also shifted to focus more on giving people psychological tools to deal with a disaster before it happens, rather than after. 

"If you are prepared for it, it's night and day," said Baskin. "Compared to if you just think about being punched in the stomach, if you tighten your muscles it's going to hurt — but it's not going to hurt nearly as much."

Amy Baskin is the community educator with the CMHA in Kamloops. She says they are changing their programming to accommodate wildfire season. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

The United Way Thompson Nicola Cariboo is also shifting to a more proactive approach in which it fundraises and co-ordinates information rather than working on the front lines managing volunteers and unpacking donation boxes.

"We're no longer as reactive and we're proactive … It's one of our priorities because this is the new normal," said executive director Danalee Baker.

Danalee Baker, executive director of United Way Thompson Nicola Cariboo, says the organization will move away from front-line work in future climate disasters. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

'Very stressful time'

Non-profits from arts to sports are being affected, too. 

Project X Theatre Productions, an outdoor theatre company in Kamloops, saw declines in attendance the past two summers because of wildfire smoke. Every year, it hosts a theatre festival in one of the city's downtown parks.

Project X Theatre Productions board president Kristen Brown says her organization is looking for a new indoor venue. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)

"It is a very stressful time because you don't know if you're going to have enough people in the seats to cover the costs of putting on a festival like this," said Project X board president Kristen Brown.

That reality is forcing the non-profit to look for a new venue where they can perform outside if it's nice and inside if the air quality gets too bad. 

Milder winters 

While wildfires are the most visible sign of climate change in the area, milder winters are also becoming more common. The warming trend is affecting a Canadian staple — outdoor ice rinks.

To combat this, a new group called the Canadian Outdoor Skating and Hockey Association has formed to promote the creation of refrigerated outdoor ice rinks powered by renewable energy.

"I started to really pay attention [because my kids are] still young and it was just quite frightening to think, 'My goodness, what are my kids going to deal with? And grandkids and future generations?' " said James Gordon, an association member. 

Right now, the group is working with the City of Kamloops on a project that could bring an outdoor skating rink to a park in the city's core. If the city goes ahead with the idea, the site would function as a splash park in the summer and a rink in the winter. 

The association hopes to bring similar ideas to communities across Canada while educating people on the effects of climate change.

James Gordon with the Canadian Outdoor Skating and Hockey Association shows where he hopes a refrigerated skating rink will be located in Kamloops. (Jenifer Norwell/CBC)


Footprint is a CBC series examining climate change issues and solutions across Canada.


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