By Barry Rueger
Published: Globe and Mail
June 3, 2023
We’ve made our home at the point of Western Head, near Liverpool, N.S. On Tuesday, I was awakened at 4:30 a.m. when my phone shrieked with a warning from the government of Nova Scotia telling me not to light a campfire. By the time the sun rose around 6:30, there was a curtain of thick grey smoke, and I could taste it on the back of my throat. We already knew about the forest fires burning out of control in our province, so the real question was: Where was the smoke coming from, and how close was the fire?
We live right between the two major blazes. The Tantallon fire is about 30 kilometres from the Halifax Citadel. At the time I write this, on Thursday, we’re told that it has consumed about 837 hectares, and is possibly becoming under control. The other one is the Barrington Lake fire in Shelburne County. It had been the fire nearest to our children and grandchildren, burning more than 17,000 hectares. Then late Wednesday night we heard that another wildfire had broken out perhaps three or four kilometres from their house. Fortunately they had already packed up and left to stay with friends in New Brunswick – the smoke was just too much for them.
After waking on Tuesday, the morning was spent on the internet, and looking at whatever media we could find to try and get an up-to-date picture of these blazes. My frustration grew as I realized that anyone who could be updating me had disappeared. Government, media, even the pundits on Reddit and Facebook had all booked off at 8 o’clock the previous night. If the fire changed direction or speed, or if you just needed to know what was happening now, not 12 hours ago, you would need to wait.
Western Head is part of a point of land just below Liverpool. It’s sparsely populated, and has one road that loops along the shore of the Atlantic Ocean that surrounds it. That morning, while we waited for any information about the fires, the isolation that had been so appealing to us took on a different tone.
Ever since moving here people have told us that the summers have become hotter, and the weather dryer. Now I look at the forest and bush that surrounds us and find myself thinking about how fast it could all go up in flames.
And I’m thinking that if the fires are this bad in late May, what on Earth will arrive in July and August?
At one point on Twitter – apparently the best source for up-to-the-minute fire news – I read that Halifax Fire deputy chief David Meldrum had said: “Without a doubt … climate change is contributing to volatility.”
That statement is, in many ways, the one that frightens me most. Right now there are thousands of households evacuated, and multiple fires out of control. If you live anywhere in Nova Scotia you’re wondering if your town or county will be next. The one thing that’s agreed on is that this is not normal for Nova Scotia.
We moved here, bought our home here, to escape the pressures of the big city. A very large part of that decision was a chance to be more self-sufficient: to grow our own food, care for our own land, and rely less on governments and corporations for day to day needs. And yes, doing all of this in an environmentally friendly way is important to us.
Now I’m wondering if our dreams of a rural, green life were misguided – if we were fooling ourselves into thinking that we could remove ourselves from the fast-paced, plastic-wrapped scurry of city life.
The challenge for us now is to try and understand if the changes coming at us because of climate change will overwhelm whatever efforts we can muster to adapt to them. Yes, we can adapt our home, and the ways that we eat and grow our food. We can remove the old oil-burning furnace, and add solar panels. But is that enough to counter global warming, rising sea waters and forest fires?
So far, the fires have stayed away from us, and have even changed direction, but Nova Scotia is heading into a summer of hot and dry weather. Instead of relaxing in our yard, building a compost bin and cutting grass, I’m spending my day on the internet and watching press conferences to try and guess whether we should be loading up the car and heading somewhere else to be safe.
And, of course, I’m asking about the future of our grandchildren.
That, more than anything, terrifies me. So far they’ve survived this year’s fires OK, but what about the next ones, and the ones in the years that follow? Will it become normal for them to wake up to a hazy sky, the taste of smoke lingering on their tongues?