In late June 2021, a powerful heat wave rippled across British Columbia, scorching billions of sea creatures, sending raptors tumbling from their nests, and causing trees to spiral into sudden branch drop. Across the province’s towns and cities, at least 619 people died, a human toll so high it remains the deadliest extreme weather event in Canadian history. In the small B.C. town of Invermere, Kate Watt remembers raging wildfires as temperatures climbed into the 40s.
“For years, everyone's been saying that Invermere is just a total tinderbox and that it's just a matter of time before something starts,” said Watt. “But that was the first summer that I'd really experienced the effects of climate change, and to be honest, it really scared me.”
A year earlier, the Kootenay-based conservation group Wildsight was looking for a way to engage young people faced with record unemployment brought on by the COVID-19 restrictions.
Watt, then 21, saw an online advertisement for something called “climate corps.” Intrigued, she signed up, drove four hours to the town of Nelson, and immediately began learning how to use a chainsaw, a drip torch and long list of wildfire suppression tactics.
Soon Watt was sent to Western Provincial Park, where she spent a month thinning out forest undergrowth to prevent wildfires from threatening Nelson's primary source of drinking water. An hour north outside New Denver, she would later help plant a community garden, both to provide a local source of food and act as a fire break for the community.
“Honestly, it has helped me so much, like every job that I've gotten since has been in large part because of my experience [that summer],” said Watt, who would go on to join the BC Wildfire Service.
Since then, the pilot program has expanded to six communities across B.C., with the young workers putting in more than 7,000 working days under the now independent BC Youth Climate Corps.
On Vancouver Island, an Indigenous-led program is rejuvenating Kwakwaka'wakw traditional cultural and land management practices. In Kamloops, young participants worked with the city to deliver an education program teaching residents how to better climate-proof their homes during extreme weather, and how to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions while lowering energy costs. Roughly 80 per cent of the people who took the assessment later said they would make changes to homes.
Another group of young workers in Nelson installed solar panels and heat pumps, and retrofitted windows and doors at a home for adults with developmental disabilities. The building now has a lower carbon footprint and is more comfortable during extreme heat and cold.
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