When people hear the term "climate refugee," most think of huddled masses from impoverished countries driven from their homes by drought and famine. But there are also climate refugees in wealthy countries like Canada. I know because I’m one of them.

Before I left my home in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, we lived on a mountain ridge above the city of Kelowna, across the street from a large regional park full of hiking trails and wildlife, and up the hill from some of Canada’s best wineries. Our lives were filled with outdoor activities, kayaking in mountain lakes, touring the many celebrated wineries, and heading out the front door every morning to walk our dog in Rose Valley Regional Park. But even then, I knew our life in the Okanagan was under threat.

Until 2008, I was the bureau reporter at CBC News in Kelowna and, among other things, I was the lead reporter on the "Summer of Fire" in 2003 that destroyed hundreds of homes in Kelowna and the Thompson Valley around Barriere. The experience, quite literally, is burned into my memory.

The day I began to suspect all the talk of climate change was more than hot air was on Aug. 1, 2003, when I was driving along the Thompson River from Barriere while covering the McLure fire that destroyed more than 70 homes and a number of businesses.

On the way, I spotted a small fire in a rail yard in Kamloops, practically next door to the Kamloops Fire Base. I thought the water bombers would knock the fire out in mere minutes but instead, the fire streaked across the rail yard, got into some grasslands, and as a Rank 6 inferno, roared north toward the town of Rayleigh.

I have been in dozens of fires as a reporter and previously as a firefighter myself, so I have personal knowledge of how fires behave. What I saw that day was like nothing I’d seen before. This fire towered more than a hundred metres high and flowed like liquid over the ground. Trees literally exploded as the fire approached, with tree trunks and debris thrown hundreds of metres into the air, even as helicopters and aircraft tried desperately to drop fire retardant and guide it away from the hundreds of people trapped in Rayleigh.

This was not "normal" fire behaviour. No firefighter I knew had ever seen anything like the fires that burned in Barriere and Rayleigh. Weeks later, the Okanagan Mountain Park fire ignited, destroying another 239 homes.

At the time, it was the worst wildfire in history and since then, the predictions of climatologists have played out with terrifying accuracy in the Okanagan Valley. The frequency of massive, uncontrollable fires has increased to the point where our family was evacuated three times. In 2021, a catastrophic "atmospheric river" destroyed all the highways and roads between Vancouver and the Okanagan Valley. Just like an apocalyptic disaster movie, crowds packed into grocery stores, competing to grab the last canned foods or rolls of toilet paper off the almost-bare shelves.

The heat dome was even worse, as temperatures soared to an unheard of 47 C in Kelowna and 49.3 C in nearby Lytton, which burned to the ground the next day. The heat caused hundreds of deaths in B.C., making it the deadliest weather-related disaster in our history.

Gary Symons was living an idyllic life in B.C.'s Okanagan Valley. Then one catastrophic fire after another and a heat dome convinced him to move. #wildfires #okanagan #HeatDome #ClimateChange

Healthy grape vines in past years in B.C.'s Okanagan. Photo by: Stephanie Symons

Despite all that, it was the fate of the wine grapes that finally convinced us our time in the Okanagan Valley was coming to an end. Before we moved, I was editor of the agricultural magazine Orchard and Vine and in 2022, I learned that 30 to 50 per cent of the entire crop had been destroyed, but worse, many of the vines were also damaged or dead.

I also learned the productivity of wine grapes in the region had been declining steadily for 10 straight years BEFORE the 2022 disaster and the same thing was happening in California, France, Australia, Chile and Argentina, a result of extreme temperatures and wildfires.

The evidence had become overwhelming that the Okanagan Valley is facing a growing environmental catastrophe that threatens the core of its economy, which is based on agriculture, tourism and forestry. Many people, including me, suffered from annual bouts of asthma.

With our kids out of the house and living in Vancouver, we didn’t have any compelling reason to stay in West Kelowna anymore, so we made the hard decision to leave our friends, our beautiful neighbourhood and my wife’s job and flee to the relatively cool climate of the Gulf Islands.

Sadly, our fears of climate catastrophe in the Okanagan are being fully realized. Last year, the largest wildfires in B.C.’s history tore across the province, but particularly through the area where we once lived, which was at the heart of the now infamous McDougall Creek wildfire.

Our old house was not destroyed, but 200 families lost their homes and our beloved Rose Valley Regional Park became a wasteland of blackened, dead trees.

Then, extreme cold set in once again over the winter and this past week, we learned that virtually all the wine grapes in the Okanagan Valley have been lost. While we know the grapes are gone, it is also likely the vast majority of vines are dead or badly damaged, which means the only way the wine industry can recover is through a full replant of the entire region. At best, growers are three years away from seeing another crop, but there is no guarantee new vines will survive, either.

The wineries I visited and wrote about, the families who built them from nothing, the people who work in the wine industry and agri-tourism all face a bleak future. So, I am not the only climate refugee from the Okanagan. I’m just one of the first to move on and seek a life somewhere I hope will be less ravaged by global warming.

For me, those dead grape buds in the Okanagan Valley are Canada’s canary in the coal mine, the graphic warning that true catastrophe awaits us should we fail to win our existential battle against climate change.

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This is truly bad news for the wine industry around the world and for many of us who enjoy good quality wine. Climate change is certainly having a major around the globe, but still surprised that conservative governments continue to have their heads in the sand and continue to support fossil fuels that are a major contributor to greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. But all the climate events around the world still have not swayed the selfish climate deniers who continue to spread misinformation to preserve their anti-climate ways.

I am not convinced that enough is being done and a collapse of the eco system will happen before conservatives and climate deniers may wake up. But I am sure when the time comes, they will scream the loudest despite the fact that they have been at fault for many years with denial and conspiracy nonsense.

Unfortunately, I don't think conservatives will ever wake up to the reality of the climate crisis. Facts and logic have no impact on their ideology.

Truly sad.

In the summer of 2003 I made a half dozen return flights to Calgary from Vancouver to visit my mother in hospital. We flew right over Kelowna and I was appalled to lose count of all the forest fire plumes rising high into the atmosphere. There were 200+ visible from 39,000 feet. The smoke blanketed Calgary for weeks, then spread to Vancouver and beyond.

Every day I thought of the direct link between Alberta's massive emissions profile -- and my own flights, as necessary as they were -- and climate change. There seemed to be a lot of diminishing of the issue in the conversations I had with family and friends, even with visibility down to a km on Calgary streets due to the ground level smoke.

The Okanagan is the one of the top vacation and retirement spots for Albertans. That will probably change as the dry forests give way to solid desert and the big lakes in the region evaporate.

Adaptation is possible, but so is moving to a cooler coast.

The evidence is mounting that the Prairies will be entering a terrible period of drought this year, a carryover from last year. Forest fires are getting a lot of attention, but drought stricken Prairie grain crops and driwd up river beds will probably garner as much news.

Fighting climate heating MUST now be accompanied by a parallel adaptation initiative where water conservation is a top concern.

The warnings were issued a decade ago by scientists who study glaciers and rivers, and now it is all coming to pass.

How foolish Alberta politicos will seem when they pontificate about "woke" federal officials "damaging" the oil economy when the water supply in Calgary is down to 50% of the standard flow.

It is such a shame we didn’t get onto working this climate change problem 40 or 50 years ago when climate scientists (including those working at Big Oil companies) were pretty sure how things would evolve given unbridled burning of fossil fuels. I lived in Peachland from 1989 to 1994 - the Mount Boucherie fire in the then Westbank was a shocking event, but well contained after its initial flare up. Higher winds that evening may have given us a taste of things to come. We moved away for a number of years so we missed the 2003 fires - should have paid more heed to those disasters, but the call of the beautiful Okanagan attracted us back to Peachland. Between 2008 and 2014 we were faced with almost annual wildfires. The IGA supermarket lost all of its frozen and refrigerated food during the Gorman’s Mill fire due to 3 days with no electricity and pretty much everyone in town lost whatever was in their fridges and freezers (think of the waste). Peachland was cut-off from the North and it was stressful days and nights. 3 years running our home was on evacuation alert due to fires - water bombers flying directly overhead the house and dropping less than ½ kilometer away is guaranteed to make you jumpy. We too decided enough was enough and moved to Vancouver Island - and guess what? Drought and wildfires on de Island mon. Time to stop running and work at fixing this. Time to get radical. Time for more than just talk. LET’S GO!