Pete McMartin: Wildfires put our relationship with the natural world and hope at risk

I live in an old neighborhood called Beech Grove, and its name tells its story:

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It faces the beach on the western shore of Boundary Bay, and is an orchard – or was. Pockets of the large cedar and Douglas fir trees that once shaded the neighborhood still stand, as do some of the small beach cottages that once made up the Grove’s housing stock, but many of the larger trees and smaller cottages have fallen into the hands of an influx of wealthy families who, attracted to Neighborhood charm, they’re transforming Beach Grove into an upscale area.

These newcomers find room in their lives for two-and-a-half-story ranch-style mansions, driveways filled with SUVs and trailered boats, but what they don’t have less room for are trees. Under the auspices of a municipal government that does little to limit the growing space of new homes, older homes are being torn down and their lots cleared to make room for designer kitchens, en-suite bathrooms, and, more recently, backyard pools — an irony, given that the ocean is just a short walk away. Walking distance from the street. At the same time, any trees that encroach on the architect’s plan are toppled.

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My wife and I have lived in Beech Grove for 30 years, and on a 60-by-120-foot lot, there are three large cedar trees, two white pines, and a Douglas fir, all of which are, by my estimation, over 70 feet tall. They loom over the house. Its thick roots, with a thick trunk, gave our once-level driveway a widow’s hump. It’s a whimsical nightmare, raining cones, needles, fronds, seeds, pollen, and, during the worst winter storms, branches as thick as arms hitting the surface. I have to clear our gutters clogged with tree debris twice a year, and four years ago, I fell off the roof while doing so. I was lucky to come away with a few CDs and half a year of rehab. Trees, literally, hurt.

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But there is also this:

Our large trees have been a refuge for squirrels, raccoons, bald eagles, nuthatches, chickadees, sparrows, robins, wrens, bushworms, juncos, tui, hummingbirds, great horned owls, hawks, and kestrels, at one time. Although now gone, a colony of herons painted our back deck with expressive spots of bird droppings. Trees are also our shelter: even on the hottest days this summer, their shade kept our house cool. We have no need for air conditioning.

Beneath our large conifers is a bed of Japanese maples, mountain ash, willow, birch, styrax, lilac, rhododendron, mock orange and snowball bushes, and a tall, dense hedge of climbing hydrangea that has colonized our entire hedgerow. On the municipal streets running along the front and side of our house, we planted five akebono cherry trees, which bloom in the spring with clouds of white and pink petals, and five apple trees of diverse heritage, a raid for neighborhood children in the fall. There is a pond full of goldfish. My wife’s flower garden is in the front yard and my rock garden is in the back. We don’t have grass.

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Recently, given the news, given the drought and the specter of climate change it portends, I’ve begun to look at big trees in a light I’ve never seen them before: I’ve begun to look at them with fear. I scanned them and all the other trees in the orchard for signs of stress, watching the foliage wilt and turn brown and the branches turn bone-colored.

The trees were robbed of their beauty. They no longer exist in the present but in a possible future that could bring disaster. Since I read about it daily in the newspapers and watched it every night on television, it was not difficult for my mind to see our trees bursting into flame. If it could happen in unlikely places like Yellowknife and Lahaina, why not Beech Grove?

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Or why it can’t happen anywhere? How many homeowners living in densely forested rural areas have begun to view the landscape around them with something approaching fear? How many people are beginning to wonder about moving, or giving up the joys of the countryside and small town for the relative safety of the city? How many people have started thinking about escape routes or what to pack in emergency bags? How many city dwellers who have country houses or cottages have begun to wonder about holding on to those houses and cottages?

This year’s fires closed lumber mills, disrupted oil and gas production, and harmed the tourism and travel industries. They have left millions of would-be travelers wondering exactly where there will be a safe place to vacation. As my wife and I canceled our vacation plans in Greece and Italy this summer due to the heat and wildfires there, tourism associations across Canada are reporting increases in cancellations due to the wildfires here.

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These are all very real impacts, and people’s lives and livelihoods are at risk. But other, less obvious effects are also at risk. Our sense of time. Our relationship with the natural world. Hopes.

It’s not just the landscape that changes when it burns to the ground.

Fire destroys more than trees.

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