It was unbearably hot when Mayor Jan Polderman (62) drove back to his hometown of Lytton last week after visiting a friend. The remote village of about 250 in the interior of British Columbia, a province in western Canada, baked in the bright afternoon sun. A strong, stifling wind blew air of over 40 degrees Celsius through the town, located in a vast landscape of mountains, forests and rivers northeast of Vancouver.
Polderman drove through the few streets of the village and first saw some smoke on the south side, then a fire that spread very quickly. “There was fire from end to end. The whole village was on fire,” says Polderman, a son of Dutch immigrants who moved to Canada from Kruiningen in Zeeland after the Second World War.
Also read: Unprecedented heat wave ravages Canada’s west coast
Lytton had been in the news for several days as the focal point of the extreme heat wave that ravaged the northwestern United States and western Canada. Under the influence of a so-calledheat dome‘, a high-pressure area, temperatures throughout the region rose to well above 40 degrees. In Lytton, the mercury had even risen to 49.6 degrees the previous day – a startling temperature record for all of Canada. The peak was higher than the highest temperatures ever recorded in Europe and South America and just seven degrees below the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth according to Guinness World Records: 56.7 degrees in Death Valley, California in 1913.
Burnt to ashes in no time
After that extreme heat, which scientists have attributed to climate change, the fire caught fire on June 30. Lytton was largely destroyed by the conflagration, which killed two residents. Of the approximately eighty houses in the village, only six are still standing. The village hall, the police station, a clinic, a few shops: almost everything was reduced to ashes in no time. The origin of the fire is being investigated; The fire is believed to have been caused by humans, authorities said.
Polderman, despite the power outage and mobile communication, issued an evacuation order and urged neighbors to leave as soon as possible. In total, about a thousand people from the area fled. He hurriedly grabbed some things at home – his computers, some clothes and shoes, medicines – and drove his wife, dog and cat headlong out of the flames. He lives with a brother not far from Vancouver. “I always thought that if I ever had to evacuate, I would go there. But the moment it happens, you think: I should have planned it better.”
Resident Gordon Murray feels like a climate displaced person who suddenly had to flee the effects of global warming
Inmate Gordon Murray filmed his and his partner’s flight by car. They passed burning house after burning house (“Holy shit!“), can be seen on the video, and had less than a hundred meters of visibility. They drove to “where the smoke was thinnest,” he told Canadian broadcaster CBC. He feels like a climate displaced person who suddenly had to flee from the effects of global warming. “We were at the intersection of climate change, but it’s coming at everyone.”
From his residence address, Polderman now tries to comprehend what happened and to arrange things. The village’s computer systems have been destroyed, telephone numbers are unreachable. Residents have fled and want to know what happened to their house. Lytton is not yet accessible. Access roads have been closed while the fire brigade is still extinguishing the area.
Wind like a gas burner
Polderman never thought that a disaster of this magnitude would take place, he says in English, that he speaks better than Dutch. Although wildfires are more common in the region, the combination of drought, extreme heat and a strong, warm wind that acted as a gas burner killed Lytton. “The devastation is unimaginable,” he says. “Who would have ever thought it would get this hot?”
Also read: Canadian heat wave was a fluke, but the chance of it growing very strongly
Many wonder that. How could temperatures soar in Canada, a northern country known for its freezing temperatures rather than tropical weather? Summer heat waves are no stranger to Canada – nicknamed ‘the Great White North’ – but they usually occur in August, not June. Also, the height of the new record, more than four degrees higher than the previous one in 1937, caused a stir. “Heat records are usually broken by tenths of a degree, not 4.6 degrees,” wrote climate activist Greta Thunberg on Twitter.
The apocalyptic combination of smashed temperature records, wildfires and meltwater flooding threat is “almost biblical,” according to David Phillips, a climatologist at Canada’s Department of Environment and Climate Change. Polderman sees it as “a heat wave that I hope I only experience once in my life.” But climate scientists warn that it could happen more often.
Lytton was already known as one of the hottest places in Canada. Although the coastal regions of British Columbia have a temperate maritime climate that, according to Polderman, “resembles that of the Netherlands”, the interior is “more like a desert”. The area, with its forested mountains and sun-burnt ranch plains, has a semi-arid climate. Outliers of 40 degrees are more common in summers. But what do people do at 49 degrees?
“The bottom line is that people sit in their basements trying to stay cool,” Polderman says. “They go out at night, most of them stay inside during the heat of the day.” They wear gloves to drive because you can’t touch the steering wheel.
Reality: like science fiction
Steven Rice, a farmer in his sixties from Spences Bridge, a village 22 miles northeast of Lytton, calls the new reality “something out of The Twilight Zone”. He helped prepare food for dozens of firefighters at The Packing House, a restaurant run by his wife. “This was a huge outlier, I think it’s a warning,” says the bearded Rice, dressed in a T-shirt with a big sun.
Rice has lived in Spences Bridge since 1988, growing tomatoes and fruit. His plants are now partly withered. “The climate has definitely changed here since 1988,” he says. Extremely cold winter temperatures are much less common. “I think the last time it was colder than minus twenty was in 2016. We used to have those days every year.”
“The wind was so hot, we thought a breeze would help. Not at 49 degrees. Then it is a wind heater”
“The extreme heat made some of my grandchildren throw up,” he says. “The adults were sitting in the shade and gasping for wind. Mother Nature answered those prayers, but when the wind came, we said, “Please take it back.” The wind was so hot, we thought a breeze would help. Not at 49 degrees. Then it is a wind heater.”
That windshield sparked the Lytton inferno and an exceptionally early wildfire season in British Columbia (BC). Across the province, 90,000 hectares of forest have already gone up in flames this year, according to the BC Wildfire Service. That is more than three times the average for the entire season over the past ten years.
Also read the interview with climate scientist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh: ‘The worrying thing is: no one saw this heat wave coming’
The fire is not yet under control in the Lytton area. A blue haze of smoke hangs around the town of Kamloops. North of Lillooet, a giant plume of smoke covers a valley. Helicopters fly in and out with water bags, which they fill by skimming the surface of a river. They form dots above the fire they are fighting.
According to Peter Busse, mayor of Lillooet, the fires are far enough away from the site not to pose an immediate threat to residents. However, the shock has been there since he saw evacuees from Lytton arriving on the night of the fire. Some were not wearing socks and shoes. “That shows how quickly they had to get away,” he says. Busse, a German-born engineer, emphasizes the importance of preparing places in the region for extreme heat. With cooling centers for people without air conditioning. Keep a close eye on the elderly, especially single people.
For fire hazards, it is above all a matter of prevention, he says. “Most fires are caused by humans. We have to be vigilant about campfires and cigarette butts.” There are warning signs along the endless roads in the bone-dry area: campfires prohibited. People can call 911 if they see something.
Gordon Murray, a displaced resident of Lytton, sees the disaster as a crystal-clear warning of climate change. “We were not prepared for it, and I think society is not prepared for it either. We have to work together as a society to be ready. Because we have discovered,” he says, referring to the dead, “that if you wait until the last minute, people will be left behind.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 10 July 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of July 10, 2021