Emphysema City — Darkness at Noon

The summer of 2017 was the worst for British Columbia forest fires in 59 years. As a direct result, by August smoke-filled skies cast a dirty smudge over Greater Vancouver and, for 10 days in September, the sun was completely obscured by layers of particulate. During this time, Edward Schuldt, a former Vancouver resident now living in England, arrived for a visit. He files this report.

I first suspected something was amiss about 10 minutes into our descent on Air Transat TS777 from London to Vancouver. Less than a mile above ground, we were descending through thick dark cloud, seemingly at the centre of a thunder-less storm.

The aircraft monitor in front of me read one minute to landing—and still no sight of Vancouver’s ubiquitous mountains, forests and inlets. Only a grey landscape, punctuated by the faded yellow of parched fields and lawns. Just 11:20 a.m., and it looked like the last stages of twilight. What on earth was going on?

Several days later and it still looks like twilight. I realize that the ever-present cloud blanketing everything isn’t cloud at all, but stagnant smoke from the forest fires burning throughout BC. No wind, no rain. Occasionally, a faint orange ball materializes in the haze, masquerading as the sun. I have to remind myself this is Vancouver. It could easily be one of those bleak landscape sets in a Star Wars movie.

Online reports suggest that the air-pollution risk is either very low or non-existent. I don’t believe them. The air does not feel fresh. Reports also suggest the air will clear by such and such a day. But it doesn’t. The smog/fog/blanket of cloud sits low and heavy. Claustrophobic, I’m desperate to see blue sky and mountains.

This is pristine, clean, beautiful Vancouver? I’ve known the city for 70 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it.

I can believe what some reports say, that this is the worst smog in the entire history of the province.

Uncharacteristically, the concrete skyscrapers of Yaletown and the West End provide no contrast to the natural beauty of this forest-cushioned metropolis. And with no towering mountains as a backdrop, the city becomes another cheerless Alphaville.

Surprisingly, Vancouverites seem to take this all in stride. Young and old alike still jog along the miles of seawalls. And the limitless restaurants and sidewalk cafes are brimming with happy chatter, as though all is as it should be.

I’m overjoyed to see that the sky is completely clear this morning. Finally, the Vancouver I know and love. Bright, beautiful, breezy.

But I can’t help feeling unsettled by what I experienced here this summer. Is Vancouver’s response to the wildfires a version of the British stiff upper lip? Or a form of blindness? After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask if the smoke, while gone now, and the fires that produced it, are another unforeseen result of global warming. And they will likely happen again.

Shouldn’t BC be more prepared the next time?

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