When I woke up this week, the sun was blocked out by smoke.

I’m writing this on August 19, 2018 from Prince George which, according to the map on my computer, has an air quality index rating of 224 aka Purple aka “Very Unhealthy.”

The Air Quality Index map, giving me a visual representation of air pollution around the world in close to real-time, is one of many maps I never knew I needed four years ago — the first time I first woke up to find the sun blocked out by smoke. Those maps include Emergency Info B.C.’s map of evacuation orders and alerts province-wide, the B.C. Wildfire map and, for the spring, the B.C. River Forecast Centre’s 10-day predictions for which rivers and streams might overflow.

Now I pore over those maps, trying to decipher which way the wind is blowing in the hopes of discovering a patch of land I can retreat to for temporary relief from this smoke: a lake, a river, a mountain somewhere I can breathe.

This weekend that desire drove me somewhere I rarely go for recreational reasons: the mall, with its open space and double doors and frosted overhead windows providing a simulation of being out in the world without actually having to be there. I wondered, vaguely, is this the future? Cheap imitations of the outdoors to sate us when the real outdoors verge on uninhabitable?

Wildfire evacuees line up at the CN Centre in Prince George at 9:30 in the morning as smoke blocks out the sun.

I think to myself, “don’t be alarmist” but then another part of me asks “doesn’t this warrant some alarm?” Maybe the fact I’ve had to keep my windows closed for the entire month of August to prevent ash from drifting into my lungs warrants a little more alarm than I’m allowing myself to feel. Isn’t this exactly what all those post-apocalyptic movies look like? The rich and well-to-do in islands of luxury while the rest languish outside?

* * *

When I woke up this week, the sun was blocked out by smoke.

It would be a lie to say it was dark as night, because it was darker than that. Streetlights turned on, but even then visibility was poor. Birds flew low and, weirdly, I heard a rooster crowing in the distance.

Did you see that story about the two men who had to punch their way out of an elevator to escape flash flooding in Toronto?

Waiting for livestock to arrive from the southside of Francois Lake.

Maybe I’m alone in this, but it feels like the magnitude of what we’re witnessing is a little too much to actually take in.

I read an article in the New York Times about “the new normal”. 2018 is shaping up to be one of the hottest years on record, alongside the previous four– and this without any El Niño to help it along. According to the climate scientists being interviewed, this trend is unlikely to end.

“We haven’t reached a new normal,” Daniel Swain of the University of Los Angele says. “This isn’t a plateau.”

Did you hear that 33 people in Montreal died from this year’s record-breaking heat?

A firefighting camp in Fraser Lake, with crews from around the world.

When I woke up this week, the sun was blocked out by smoke.

In an essay I’ve re-read several times this year, the writer Zadie Smith grapples with what it means when we say “the new normal”. She speaks of changing weather in England, but her descriptions resonate with me here in Prince George— no longer being able to count on pleasant days in July, or snow for Christmas.

“We can’t even say the word ‘abnormal’ to each other out loud,’” Smith writes. “It reminds us of what came before.”

What does it mean if this is the new normal? It means that for kids growing up today, summer isn’t just trips to the lake or long nights playing outside. It’s also days on end of being forced indoors as hundreds of evacuees come into your city, pushed out of their own homes by flames— or, worse, being among those pushed away, wondering when or if you’ll be able to return. That’s if things don’t get worse.

Southbank residents climb into motorboats to rescue their belongings after an evacuation order is given.

And it’s not just summer that’s changing. Earlier this year I was shovelling my deck when I was hit by what I can only describe as “pre-nostalgia,” anticipating a time where my shovels may have no practical application— each year there is more rain in winter than Prince George is supposed to have. Daily shovelling is hard work, but I’m glad to have it and the idea of a world where someone living in this place doesn’t have to dig themselves out once in a while as kids slide down snowbanks makes me sad.

* * *

When I woke up this week, the sun was blocked out by smoke.

In a few week’s time, fall will be here, and then winter and I’ll have compartmentalized all this away. The memory of driving west toward the fire to witness people, scared, shouting, scrambling to rescue livestock and beloved family possessions after being told to leave their homes, now!, will have faded. I’ll look at this writing and perhaps feel it’s a little melodramatic, isn’t it, because after all things are fine now and my house was never at risk.

But right now I want to remember the number of times people have said the word ‘apocalyptic’ to me in an attempt to describe the scenes they’ve witnessed with their own eyes. I want to remember looking at the darkened sky and thinking that word wasn’t adequate and coming up with another: Biblical.

Mark, 13:24: “The sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light.”

Ezekiel, 32:7: “I will cover the heaven, and make the stars thereof dark.”

Acts, 2:20: “The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood.”

When I woke up this week, the sun was blocked out by smoke.

Fort Fraser falls into darkness Tuesday, at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Late last year, Kate Allen at the Toronto Star published a piece called “The Great Global Species Shakeup” that hit me more than any other climate change reporting. Her team illustrated what the predicted 2 to 5 C temperature change over the course of the next few decades will mean for Canada, particularly the boreal zone in which I reside. Shifting poles, an increase in Lyme and other parasitic diseases, but what really got to me was a map showing that the common chickadee is likely to stop living here in my lifetime.

It’s such a little thing, not seeing a chickadee in my backyard, but it’s precisely its littleness that makes it so shocking or, maybe, so easy to understand. The extinction of caribou and raging forest fires are apocalyptic, but the banality of chickadees taking off is more striking, because it is just more imaginable despite the plethora of evidence supporting the other scenarios.

As Smith writes, “It’s hard to keep apocalypse consistently in mind, especially if you want get to get out of bed in the morning”.

I see a bit of blue sky poking through the haze. Maybe I’ll venture out for a while. A walk would do me good. We can still enjoy the summer, can’t we? And, anyways, maybe next year will be better.

* * *

When I woke up this week, the sun was blocked out by smoke.

A logging truck exits Fort St. James along Highway 27.