May 19, 2024


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Climate displacement a growing concern in B.C. as extreme weather forces residents out of their homes

Climate change is hitting home in B.C. with more and more people out of their homes because of weather

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Four years after a devastating wildfire destroyed her home in Ashcroft, Angie Thorne and her family haven’t returned to their community.


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“The trauma we experienced still lives with us every day. … We didn’t ask to be, or want to be, continually displaced from our home,” said Thorne, whose house of 21 years burned down in the 2017 Elephant Creek wildfire.

“We have no one to turn to to help us get back to our homelands.”

Tens of thousands of British Columbians have been displaced from their homes because of wildfire and floods in the past five years, as climate crisis-related disasters become more intense. Experts are trying to figure out how many people are still out of their homes, but there isn’t enough data tracking displaced people in B.C.

In 2020, extreme weather caused by global warming displaced 30 million people globally, with seven million of those people still displaced by the end of the year, according to the Internal Displacement Centre. Since 2008, extreme weather has displaced on average 24.5 million people a year.


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Smoke rises from Lytton on June 30.
Smoke rises from Lytton on June 30. Photo by JR Adams/Handout via REUTERS

Now B.C. is adding to that grim number, as the province grapples with a brutal wildfire season, and the aftermath of a heat wave that led to hundreds of deaths and smashed Canadian temperature records. A day later, wildfire destroyed the village of Lytton, killing two people and displacing about 1,200 residents.

It has been difficult watching the residents of Lytton go through the same nightmare, said Thorne. Especially when she and her family are still grieving.

“We are heartbroken and just plain broken down from the fight to be reunited with our community with no support from government officials,” she said.

B.C. communities on the front lines of the climate crisis must be more prepared to help displaced residents because of extreme weather, wildfires, floods and droughts, says Nicole Bates-Eamer, who is working on her PhD in climate displacement at the University of Victoria and is a lead voice in the B.C. climate displacement project at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.


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The project is looking at climate displacement, which is when someone is forced from their home because of disasters linked to climate change. But climate change also affects people’s decisions to move because of its effects on livelihoods and people’s health.

As part of her research, she spoke last summer with mental health workers who worked with people displaced by the 2017 wildfires, and anecdotally, she heard there were B.C. residents still living in temporary conditions in and around Kamloops.

She said Indigenous people are disproportionately affected by disasters, in part because their communities tend to be more remote and far from emergency responders. There are also problems with co-ordination between different levels of government.


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An independent review examining the 2017 flood and wildfire seasons found there was insensitivity to Indigenous needs during evacuation.

Thorne agrees there needs to be more co-ordination between governments to ensure residents have support to rebuild in their homes.

After the 2017 fire, Thorne’s family was displaced for two years and put through a housing review by the Ashcroft Indian Band.

“Eventually, we were denied a house from our band,” said Thorne, adding she feels Emergency Support Services, a provincial program that provides funding to local and First Nations governments for residents impacted by disaster, and Indigenous Services Canada did a poor job supporting them with the administration of their band.


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“We felt discriminated against,” she said, adding that she would like to see the provincial government have a say in how band governments distribute emergency funding. For instance, Thorne wants B.C. to provide bands with strict guidelines to ensure all homes lost to wildfire are rebuilt.

Thorne said they searched for legal support but couldn’t find anyone who would take on a case that deals with on-reserve issues. A request to the Ashcroft Indian Band for information on how the community was rebuilt was not returned by deadline.

“My adult children are still homeless due to the Elephant Hill wildfire in 2017 and my father is still homeless and is paying high rent in town, with absolutely no support from the administration office at all,” said Thorne, who is currently living in a trailer in Cache Creek.


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The residents of Lytton, many still living in hotel rooms, are now facing a similar uncertainty about their future.

Bates-Eamer said there needs to be a discussion about high-risk zones in the province.

“If someone wants to build in a floodplain, the municipality could say, ‘No, you can’t build there,’ but that undercuts their own tax base. Rebuilding a town in a high-risk zone, I don’t know how we navigate that,” she said.

“It is also a social justice issue.”

Nicole Bates-Eamer, an expert in climate displacement at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.
Nicole Bates-Eamer, an expert in climate displacement at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. Photo by Pacific Institute for Climate So /PNG

Displacement in B.C. is not a new phenomenon. The province has dealt with forest fires for a long time, but what is different is the frequency and severity of wildfires, floods and extreme weather, she said.

The potential for more displacement is there, but the problem is there is not a lot of data showing what has happened to those displaced people, she added. While we often think of displacements and evacuations as short-term, they can be long-term with significant impacts on mental health and communities.


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Climate disaster resilience

Bates-Eamer said there needs to be more of a focus on being prepared — for instance, clearing brush, stocking emergency preparedness kits, and having enough water in case of a disaster.

“These things sound like a Saturday task, but they make a real difference,” said Bates-Eamer.

Insurance companies and Ottawa are trying to figure it out. Last year, the federal government announced a study on flood insurance and relocation to look at options to protect homeowners who are at high risk of flooding and don’t have adequate insurance. The task force will also determine the viability of a low-cost national flood insurance program and options for potential relocation of residents from the highest-risk areas.


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An RCMP vehicle drives past the remains of vehicles and structures in Lytton on July 9, 2021, after a wildfire destroyed most of the village on June 30.
An RCMP vehicle drives past the remains of vehicles and structures in Lytton on July 9, 2021, after a wildfire destroyed most of the village on June 30. Photo by Darryl Dyck /The Canadian Press

A statement from the Insurance Bureau of Canada says the Lytton wildfire is a reminder of the increasing risk facing communities from a changing climate.

Governments at all levels must spend money to build resilience and make protecting families and communities a higher priority, the statement says.

“We all must do better to prepare for wildfires, floods, heat, hail and windstorms. These perils are having an outsized impact on those most vulnerable and, as a result, we must greatly enhance our efforts to mitigate future change and adapt to the new weather reality we face,” said Aaron Sutherland, vice-president western and Pacific at the bureau.

Climate mobility

In the future, more British Columbians may decide to move because of the changing climate or the threat of disaster, or health issues like wildfire smoke and ground ozone in major centres.


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“We don’t think about B.C. as being a place where people won’t be able to live. Maybe people think of Africa or parts of the U.S.,” said Bates-Eamer. “But climate change is here now, and we need to take very serious steps to prepare and prevent the amount of damage that these extreme events are going to cause.”

However, there’s a climate justice issue because many people will not have the means to move out of an uninhabitable area. That’s where planning for climate mobility needs to happen, said Bates-Eamer.

Hannah Teicher is a researcher with Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions and works with the Climigration Network, which has developed a guidebook for community conversations on climate migration.

“The first step in either relocation or rebuilding is going to be about having collaborative conversations and then building partnerships,” said Teicher, a researcher in residence for the built environment at the institute.


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Hannah Teicher, a researcher in residence for the built environment at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions.
Hannah Teicher, a researcher in residence for the built environment at the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions. Photo by Pacific Institute for Climate So /PNG

It helps communities build issues of equity and justice into those conversations, she added. “I think we’ve seen these issue in abundance in B.C., especially in Lytton where there seems to be a breakdown in communication with First Nations.”

The B.C. government is only just starting to do adaptation planning, and a key part of that is figuring out how to be prepared at a regional level.

What is the B.C. government doing?

The B.C. government provided financial assistance for the 2017 wildfire season for First Nation communities and municipalities whose infrastructure was hurt by wildfire.

Communities are encouraged to consider all of their infrastructure losses when creating their recovery plans, a spokesperson for the B.C. government said.


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“At this time, there isn’t specific funding for people displaced due to climate change, but we recognize that it is critical to integrate that into planning moving forward.” said Hope Latham.

B.C.’s Climate Preparedness and Adaptation Strategy, which is a proposal for how to adapt to a changing climate, is open until Aug. 12 for public engagement at [email protected]. Feedback will be used to inform the next phase of the strategy, which is expected to be released next year.

As for Indigenous communities, Thorne would like to see governments create land guardians, which she described as members of the community who work to assist governments to protect the land, build climate-resilient communities, and liaise with governments to help victims get financial support when disaster strikes.

“There’s a word for fire prevention in our language — ‘wayboyumc’ — and First Nations need to take care of our own lands as we have done for generations before us,” said Thorne.

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