Living in Wildfire Country

by Jessica Delaney, Principal, Engagement + Strategic Communications

Living in the Okanagan I’m used to it being hot, but this year has been next level. And now, after more than a year of COVID, we find ourselves inside once again, this time because of smoke. Currently I am not in the worst location with respect to fires, but all of the Okanagan’s air quality is in the toilet. Kamloops has been between high risk and very high risk for weeks; often the sun being blocked out nearly completely by smoke.

As an asthmatic it means that time outside is very limited. The kids don’t go outside to play. The furnace filter is changed every four weeks and we wipe ash off the patio furniture on the regular. We have our go-bag by the door, review insurance policies, and practice detachment to our belongings; reminding the kids as much as ourselves, “things can be replaced”.

I am not sharing this looking for sympathy. Again, so many have it so much worse. They have lost their homes, farms, pets, and animals. They are living far from home in hotels, just waiting for any news. I share this as a simple reminder that like wildfire smoke, most things in life, is a lived experience that needs to be acknowledged. We can see the disconnect between those who do and do not have lived experience, as our elected officials, under clear skies in Victoria, took weeks to declare a state of emergency.

When we engage individuals and communities, it is much the same. People’s lived experience, both historic and immediate, frame their reality. We show up based on what we have experienced and for many now, in wildfire country, that means having experienced the trauma of not knowing what comes next, of not breathing well, of not seeing blue skies and witnessing the utter destruction of our forests and the wildlife who call it home.

So, how can engagement honour lived experience, maybe even learn from it?

  1. Believe: If people share their lived experience, your first job is to simply believe them.
  2. Ask: Don’t debate, don’t even try to relate and thereby make it about you. Rather ask: How can we learn from this? What do you need? What does this process or project need?
  3. Act: People are tired of their words going into the abyss. Act on the learnings. Truly honour the lived experience.

If you feel the call and are able, I encourage you to donate to the Red Cross’s campaign to support evacuees here. Your donation will be tripled by the federal government. Stay well.