To appreciate the pervasiveness of wildfire in British Columbia, one must first understand the geography of the province. Most of BC is forested, with a sunbaked central plateau flanked on both sides by glaciated mountain ranges that stretch toward the Arctic. The southern coastal region known as the lower mainland, where Vancouver is located, is blanketed by the largest temperate rainforest in the world, where it rains an average of 150 days out of every year, and the winter months can be a punishing marathon of heavy clouds, never-ending drizzle, 4pm sunsets, and a guaranteed lack of sunshine. The rest of the year we now call ‘fire season’, a term used provincially to designate the stretch of comparatively drier, sunnier days between May and October.
Fire season peaks in the warmest summer months, when wildfires disrupt an otherwise paradisiacal summertime existence for most British Columbians. When smoke from regional wildfires blows in to the city, the sky is cast in a butter-yellow hue, and the sun becomes a salmon-pink dot. The smoggy, toxic air smells like wet campfire, causes eye and throat irritation, and brings a kind of low-level societal grumpiness – an almost-imperceptible panic among anyone caught outdoors. There’s an immensity and inescapability to its presence that is hard to fully grasp.
Until 2023, much of North America was unaffected by what has been a familiar, and now annual occurrence to anyone living west of the Rockies these past few years. In the remote areas of BC, unbroken swathes of coniferous forest twice the size of California, or the size of France and Germany combined, stretch from Alaska to Alberta, and every year, some of them catch fire. In these fire-prone rural areas, people now spend the summer months in a perpetual state of vigilance, as fire evacuation warnings are increasing year by year.
Due east of the lower mainland, in the province’s southern interior, sits the Okanagan Valley, where small towns skirt long lakes, and orchards and vineyards are perched on manicured hillsides that could be mistaken for Tuscany’s Lake Como. The city of Kelowna, the Okanagan Valley’s largest lakeshore community, is a winery-laden, touristy, retirement haven. It’s a city accustomed to wildfire, and has burned from multiple sides on multiple occasions, most notably in 2003, and again in 2023. To live in the Okanagan, nicknamed ‘Smokanagan’ by locals, is risky. Even as I write this, the McDougall Creek Wildfire that started on August 15th has burned over 11,000 hectares over West Kelowna, jumped the two kilometre-wide Okanagan Lake with the help of high winds, ordered the evacuation of over 35,000 people, and remains out of control.
Smoke has been a long-time nuisance in British Columbia, but discussions about wildfire are growing in size and frequency as much as the fires themselves, and have become a regular topic of conversation. The solutions, however, are elusive, slinking quietly around the periphery of our dinner tables. Air quality and visibility makes for easy small talk, but what’s to be done about the fires is a more complicated subject we struggle to make headway on. We know the problem is bigger than fire is bad and should be stopped, but perhaps we are reluctant to look any closer, for we may begin to see how wildfire is not just a natural disaster, but a radical agent of consequence in regards to forest management, climate change, and the ever-rising necessities of industry.
Our philosophical positions on wildfire are often shaped by our proximity to it: there are those who see it on the news, those who smell it in the air, those who fight it as a profession, those who watch it on the hills over their town, and those who lose everything from it. What we see over social media is equally varied: homes burn, animals flee, trees explode, soil desiccates, smoke billows, seeds release, ash fertilises, birds return, plants grow, flowers bloom. Through our modern experience of wildfire, discordant feelings are coming to the surface. We are quick to assuage our fears with the promise of resiliency, but a lot of our hopes falter without equal action, and the possibility of our collective and historic culpability is hard to grapple with. It often depends on whose perspective you hear, and who’s speaking the loudest. Some call the wildfires an act of God, which could simply mean they are beyond our ability to predict. Others interpret an act of God to mean the fires are part of a greater divine plan, or a smiting punishment for our sins.
There is terror, and loss, and grief, and hope, and wonder, and resiliency all tangled up in the burning debris at our doorstep
No matter your position, eventually, we all must reconcile with the climate crisis, and the rising threat to the places we have chosen to live. Wildfires are no longer just a natural process of rejuvenation. The geographical phoenix myth we’ve comforted ourselves with – the bittersweet one that clears the way for new life on our planet – is burning too hot. Around the world, the prevalence and severity of wildfire activity is a direct result of a warming climate, as rising temperatures transform cool and damp forests into tinderboxes.
Even with the recent return to Indigenous cultural burning practices – traditional methods perfected over millennia for managing forests with smaller, safer ground fires – there are still no known interventions that can restore climate-warmed forests to ecological balance. Once burned, some of them will simply never grow back, instead giving way to grassland and prairie. There is terror, and loss, and grief, and hope, and wonder, and resiliency all tangled up in the burning debris at our doorstep. For those of us still hoping to survive the long-term calamities fed by wind and heat and hubris, I’ve learned that a bit of creative, communal thinking can go a long way in reconnecting us to the lands our lives are shaped by.
When my friend Liz Toohey-Wiese and I first met in 2019, we bonded over those fire-borne criss-crossed feelings of wonder and hopelessness. Wildfire and the metaphors associated with it were at the heart of our art practices, and together with our social connections, decided to build a community around it. We began collecting stories, photos, art, and memorabilia, and creating a cohesive record to showcase it all.
We called it Fire Season, and it became a means of sense-making around the topic of wildfire, as the prevalence grew in western Canada. The books we now make gather a diverse mix of visual art, photography, ephemera, poetry, and essays to look at wildfires as a container for more complex and experiential topics like grief, climate change, loss, new growth, renewal, changing ideas of landscape, resilience, shared history, economy, and resource extraction. We see them as a series of time capsules in book form, and they live on, fuelled by the very conflagrations we are desperate to see thwarted. In this kaleidoscopic space, we look, and listen, as our contributors form a strange party: wildland firefighters and urban watercolour painters, homesteader poets and landscape photographers, tree planters and policy makers, romantics and survivalists. Our community recognises that we are all experiencing these catastrophes in different ways and in different proximities, and yearn to hear from one another.
Our contributors form a strange party: wildland firefighters and urban watercolour painters, homesteader poets and landscape photographers, tree planters and policy makers, romantics and survivalists
The Fire Season project isn’t meant to be a bullhorn for the apocalypse, but rather a round table of experiences. Throughout each book, the commonalities, differences, and harmonies between works generate a spirited fellowship, one Liz and I have had since the day we met. One of Liz’s creative works from those early days, a roadside billboard installation in rural BC, served as a catalyst for the Fire Season project. Driving north from the Okanagan Valley on Highway 97, between Veron and Falkland, you would have spotted the billboard. Nestled below a verdant hillside that still bears the burnt tree snags from a decades-old fire, it reads ‘Come Back Soon!’ in a jovial, cursive script. The whimsical white text is scrawled over top of a loose watercolour painting depicting a forest on fire.
It’s hard to imagine how the locals reacted, this 24-foot-wide souvenir postcard, towering over the wheat field on the south shoulder of the road. Was it heartfelt and a bit cheeky? Horrible and unwelcome? I like to think it’s what Siksika Nation artist Adrian Stimson calls a tickle and a slap: the humour hooks you, and yet the image brings about quiet contemplation. Is it the trees that should come back, and quickly, after the fire? The slogan ‘Come Back Soon!’ prompts the reader to ask: what am I missing? A bit of irony in hindsight, considering the area around the billboard burnt to the ground the following summer.
The contributions to Fire Season represent a wide range of creative praxis. What began as a project focused on wildfire in British Columbia has now brought together contributors from around the world. Some of the artists have collected remnants of charcoal from wildfires in Oregon, which they ground into pigments for printmaking. One artist walked the beaches of South Pelion in Greece, collecting the carbonized remnants of a region lost to wildfire that were washing up on the shore. Biologists have written about the future of our spreading grasslands, as more forests retreat in the wake of heating landscapes too parched to support our largest flora, and wildfires too devastating to regenerate from.
Others found connection through the minutiae of daily life, and how this new reality of annual wildfires has forced us to re-evaluate our own creature comforts. A firefighter-turned-illustrator dropped us into festive, animal-shaped inflatable rafts along a river overshadowed by a smoke-reddened sun in the distance. Another artist painted a man calmly hosing down his driveway amidst a neighbourhood in flames. For one poet in Colorado, the loss of friends and place was grieved through the eyes of their dog as they evacuated their home. For another writer, the veil grew thin between a chaotic not-so-distant future and a tenuous long-distance relationship.
We all have the power to communicate important ideas, and collectively, we can dream up a different relationship to land, to nature, and to fire. We can ask, what does the landscape want? How has our imposition of unsustainable human values created the situation we find ourselves in today? And how can we balance the aesthetic and economic worth of the landscape while acknowledging and responding to the fire burning down our world?
The creative minds throughout this project have approached these questions carefully, reflecting on where we’ve all been, and where we could go in the future with our relationship with wildfire. For now, the destination is still unclear, shrouded again this summer in that same dreamy, pink haze. Nevertheless, we keep watching the smoky sky, waiting for the winds to change direction.
Fire Season is a resource site and web store where you can find out more about the project, read features from the books, access wildfire resources and links, and purchase the books in both physical and e-reader form. Connect with us at fireseason.org.
Kyle Scheurmann is a painter and environmentalist. His practice is contingent on direct action and lived experience in the face of ecological exploitation and change
Ana Diab is a multidisciplinary artist and art librarian living on the unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territories. Her creative practice involves tapestry weaving, printmaking, and contemporary dance, and explores themes of feminism and craft, climate change, resource extraction, and non-human communication.
Liz Toohey-Wiese is an artist and educator in Vancouver BC. Since 2018, she has frequented rural artist residencies across BC, trying to learn more about wildfires in the areas she stays. Most of what she’s learned was told to her while riding in other people’s trucks on remote forest service roads. She is the co-editor of Fire Season, and an instructor of fine arts at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.