The Current

Tragedy in fire-ravaged Lytton, B.C., could be catalyst for global action on climate change, expert says

Last week, the world's attention turned to Lytton, B.C., where the small population of 250 fled due to a devastating wildfire that decimated the town. Since then, dozens more wildfires have emerged in the province. Climate scientist Mark Maslin says that immediate action on climate change is needed.

Climate scientist says that the events in B.C. could inspire innovative ways to combat the problem

Two cars, pictured above, incinerated in Wednesday's fire that engulfed Lytton, B.C. (Jon Mundall)

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There's only one feeling that Lytton, B.C., resident Gordon Murray has when remembering fleeing his home last week: "numb." 

After recording Canada's highest ever temperature (49.6 C) last Tuesday, Lytton was consumed by flames the following day — forcing its 250 residents to flee. 

A motorist watches from a pullout on the Trans-Canada Highway as a wildfire burns on the side of a mountain in Lytton, B.C., Thursday, July 1, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Murray, who spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway, says the destruction of Lytton is a stark warning that there needs to be immediate action on climate change. 

"We're the canary in the coal mine," he said. "Climate change is happening now [and] it's happening fast." 

"Everything seems the same and seems fine until it changes in an instant, and everything's gone."

While the exact causes of the fire that destroyed most of Lytton are under investigation — the heat wave contributed to tinder-dry conditions, but the B.C. Wildfire Service said human causes were likely behind the ignition — the numerous wildfires burning across the province have led many to wonder how extreme weather is going to impact B.C. in the future. 

Mark Maslin, a climate change professor at University College London, U.K., argues that the ongoing events in B.C. are a very real example of disasters to come.

"What really upsets me is we've had many of these warnings before about extreme heat waves and climate change, and people are only now just starting to listen," Maslin said. 

"I'm really hopeful that, firstly, the Canadian government, and then other governments around the world, will suddenly take notice."

A 'new normal'

The tragedy in Lytton and the subsequent B.C. fires have created a conversation among experts about how western Canada can deal with wildfires in the future. 

The Merry Creek Wildfire, near Castlegar, is one of many wildfires that burned across B.C. in the last week. (B.C. Wildfire Service)

Mike Flannigan, a meteorologist at Thompson Rivers University, says that events like these are an urgent reality. 

"There's no quick fix," he told Cross Country Checkup's Ian Hanomansing. "There's no vaccine here, but know we have to deal with the emergency that's in front of us." 

But, with the destruction in Lytton and hundreds of recorded deaths across B.C. in only a week, Maslin believes that people are now ready to accept the complicated measures that are needed to curb climate change. 

"The idea that each of us individually can affect the climate just seems really silly because we're so small and we feel individually insignificant," he argues.

"But when we see actual families houses being really badly affected, people dying ... This one village, this one town really screams at us. This is real. Climate change is real. We need to deal with it."

Meterologist and Thompson Rivers University wildfire researcher Mike Flannigan answers caller questions on heat waves, wildfires and climate change.

An opportunity to change

According to Maslin, the events in Canada could create calls to action worldwide. He believes that any significant action on climate change requires a huge effort to restructure how we think about our societies. 

"It's about thinking about building houses and retrofitting houses that can actually cope with the cold of Canada, but also extreme heat," he says. "One of the things we want to do is move away from gas and oil for actually heating homes and move to heat exchangers." 

"You can have renewable electricity actually powering them, but they heat the home in winter when you need it, and then it also cools the home in summer."

Maslin also thinks that we should focus on trying to reinterpret how cities should be developed — focusing on how urban centres can deal with what he sees as inevitable extreme weather events using things like green roofs to make cities cooler. 

But, he is quick to emphasize that ideas like this are not all replicable across all areas of the world.

Food scarcity as a result of climate change concerns Maslin deeply. He worries that with rising temperatures, less food could be produced worldwide, as farmworkers would be unable to work fields in unbearable temperatures. 

"We all have this view of farming, which is it's huge fields with air conditioned tractors, but actually the majority of food produced in the world isn't produced like that," he says. 

Yet, Maslin is also optimistic that horrific events such as the wildfires in B.C. could be a catalyst for larger change. 

"You're seeing huge companies actually making incredible pledges and meeting it about reducing their carbon footprint," he said. "But I think that actually what's happened is that we have individuals, people, who are actually saying, 'enough is enough.'"

B.C. battles more than 180 active wildfires

2 years ago
Duration 3:05
Residents of some B.C. communities at risk from wildfire are defying evacuation orders to try to protect their property, while others are trying to find reprieve from the smoke-filled air.

Ultimately, Maslin believes that global efforts to combat climate change are in all of our interests.

"All the things that we are suggesting to deal with climate change, both to reduce our carbon footprint, but also to adapt to it, are a win-win," he argues. 

"They improve people's lives, they make them healthier and also they make them want to be in the area they are."

Written by Oliver Thompson. Produced by Lindsay Rempel. 

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