It’s pouring outside, but the rain isn’t dampening Jim Hodgson’s spirits. In fact, he’s beaming.

“It is pouring monsoon rain out there, right now!” he said.

Around a week ago, Hodgson had returned home to Fort Nelson, British Columbia, a region threatened by wildfire. His cabin, surrounded by forest, survived; other homes in the region were not as lucky.

Still, it has taken the whole week to clear the ashtray smell from his home, he said.

It wasn’t the first time Hodgson had been evacuated from his home. Years ago, he was living in Kuwait and was evacuated when the Iraq-Kuwait war started. But for him, the wildfire evacuation was worse.

“You can figure out what's going to happen when somebody's firing a missile at you,” he said. “With a fire, you just don’t know.”

For those on the frontlines of wildfire, the hot months of the year translate to smoke-filled skies and the threat of evacuation and loss of property. And with the smoke and burning landscape, comes anxiety and grief. It’s why Ashley Berard refers to those like Hodgson, who have lived through summers of smoke and evacuations, as “climate survivors.”

Berard is a researcher at the University of Victoria. She grew up in Kamloops, where the anxieties surrounding wildfire were inescapable. People spoke about leaving the city, situated in an arid region of interior B.C., whenever the thick smoke descended during heavy wildfire seasons.

“These are people who have lived there their whole lives,” Berard told Canada’s National Observer. “That’s a pretty big impact.”

“You can figure out what's going to happen when somebody's firing a missile at you,” said Jim Hodgson, who returned to his Fort Nelson home after evacuating due to wildfires. “With a fire, you just don’t know.” #Climate #CanPoli #CIHR

She formalized those early conversations into her PhD research, culminating in 30 interviews with people in Kamloops and surrounding areas who have experienced suffocating smoke and hurried evacuations during wildfire emergencies.

Berard will present her research at the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Montreal later this month. The purpose is to raise awareness of the unseen impacts of Canada’s wildfire crisis: the psychological and social harms that threatening smoke and fire leave behind.

Berard believes the social impact and mental health of climate catastrophes such as wildfires and floods deserve more attention. She sees the number of people affected across the country increasing, with no signs of the climate or wildfire crises slowing down.

“I think that there's a lot of opportunity here to focus more on how people are actually doing,” she said.

Berard interviewed residents who likened living under blankets of smoke to what it was like to live through the pandemic: being isolated inside, not knowing when the outdoors will be safe again.

Some who suffered through evacuations 10 years ago are still processing and navigating the experience, Berard’s interviews with survivors revealed.

“That's grief — of loss of community, loss of home, loss of sense of place in a way, and changes in identity as well, because you become a climate survivor,” she said. Beyond the initial trauma of surviving a catastrophe, she explains, comes another round of disruption as a survivor navigates insurance claims, moving cities or rebuilding a home.

It’s still unclear how Ottawa will investigate the growing health consequences of the climate crisis and worsening wildfire seasons. In its 2024 budget, Ottawa earmarked $1.8 billion in core grant funding for the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) over the next five years, but did not specify how much of those funds is intended for environmental health researchers. CIHR told Canada’s National Observer that discussions around how the $1.8 billion will be divided and distributed are still ongoing.

Ottawa previously invested $37.5 million in the Environments and Health Signature Initiative, which researches how the environment affects health and what new methods can measure the environmental impacts on the population in Canada. It also announced $42.9 million in funding in 2023 to support health responses to climate change, including mental health.

But none of this adds up to the level of a dedicated institute. Last summer, researchers published a paper calling for creating a federal environmental health institute to study the effects of fire through the CIHR, similar to what other Western countries have established. For example, the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences has been running since the 1960s.

Currently, the CIHR is made up of 13 institutes, focused respectively on cancer, aging and Indigenous Peoples’ health, among others.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Keep reading

How many people are connecting the dots between, in the abstract sense, resource extraction and the obvious results of resource extraction. Those results, of course, including the fires at the root of this article. But, those results also include the biodiversity crisis caused, in no small part in British Columbia, by forest harvesting and other human-caused habitat degradation and destruction.

Even more important, how many people are ready to sacrifice their own resource extraction jobs (not someone else's) to prevent further irreparable harm to the biosphere as we know it?

Developing empathy for fellow citizens is one thing; effectively addressing root causes is something else entirely.