On June 30, 2021, Ivan Machelle was at home with his wife and two children when they caught the first whiff of smoke.
The father, a 42-year-old member of the Lytton First Nation, rushed into the town of Lytton, B.C., to see what was going on. As he got closer, Machelle was confronted with a creeping wall of wildfire that would soon consume the village.
“It just hit the town bridge and most of the town had been engulfed already,” he said. “I raced home.”
“It was to the point where you didn’t think anything was going to survive.”
In a “mad dash,” the family packed their neighbour’s car, propped a sprinkler on the roof of the house, and raced up the valley toward the neighbouring town of Lillooet.
His daughter, eight-year-old Leah, gazed at the dark cloud of smoke gathering in the sky.
“It was just so traumatic,” said the father. “She couldn't stop watching it as we drove off.”
HOW CLIMATE-DRIVEN DISASTER CAN AFFECT MENTAL HEALTH
Like any disaster, research has found the shocks of wildfire can lead to long-term psychological trauma. After the deadly June 2021 North American heat wave killed nearly 600 people in Canada, researchers found British Columbians’ anxiety over climate change had climbed 13 per cent.
In another study published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (also known as the “three minutes to midnight” group), a daughter-father team of Canadian researchers note children, older adults, women, first responders and those with preexisting mental health problems or fewer economic resources tend to be more affected by climate-related disasters.
“Since my daughter and I wrote this, the problem has only gotten worse,” said co-author Robert Gifford, a University of Victoria (UVic) professor of psychology and the environment.
According to the study, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) makes adults more likely to suffer anxiety, depression and substance abuse. In some cases, symptoms spiral into violence and often lead those suffering from the disorder to destroy personal relationships and lose jobs.
PTSD can also show up in children through depression and aggressive behaviour; social withdrawal and clinginess has also been documented, and those symptoms are likely to last longer than in adults, writes Gifford.
In tornado-prone areas, residents have developed pathological fears of extreme weather events, to the point where they feared leaving their homes. And after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, 38 per cent of children were found to be experiencing PTSD symptoms, writes Gifford; 10 months later, 18 per cent still showed symptoms.
Climate change-related heat waves have also been linked to increases in aggressive behaviour, leading to higher rates of homicide, suicide and spousal abuse. For those facing mental health challenges, rising heat has also led to increased hospital admissions.
Even relatively slow climate-driven changes, like that seen in the landscapes in northern Canada, can trigger environmental depression or distress, leading to dramatic reactions, such as a loss of appetite, sleeplessness and panic attacks, studies have shown.
Glacier Media has recently learned climate distress has pushed some in B.C. to attempt suicide. And researchers worry that for every degree of temperature rise, those rates will only go up.
It's not yet clear just how much last year’s devastating heat wave, wildfires, drought, and flooding contributed to climate distress among British Columbians.
But as this year's prescribed burning season gets underway, families like the Machelles are learning just how paralyzing wildfire can be months later.
COULDN’T STOP CRYING
For almost two months, the Machelle family was evacuated from one town to the next, bouncing from recreation centres in Merritt, then Chilliwack, and later to motels in Surrey and Abbotsford.
On a few occasions, a generous stranger put them up. Other days they spent in shared spaces with hundreds of people. More often they would be alone in a small rented room.
Machelle remembers having to stop on the highway at one point because he couldn’t stop crying. He says the panic wouldn’t go away and he caught himself yelling at his children.
The father was already suffering from depression before the evacuation. Some of that Machelle attributes to long, unhealed wounds, such as losing his dad to suicide when he was seven years old and an uncle to the Fraser River more recently. As a forest firefighter, he has also struggled with the trauma of an accident that broke two of his colleague's legs.
“Someone I trained on a chainsaw ended up falling a tree and it damn near killed him,” he said.
As the evacuation dragged on, Machelle says he went for a month without any counselling. The father says he let his depression go. He stopped taking his medication. He ended up drinking more.
It was only when his wife left him that he looked for help. Machelle is now seeing a family and addictions councillor and taking antidepressant and anxiety medication.
At one point, he tried going back to work as a firefighter. But when he came across burned-out skeletons of houses, all he could think about was “did these people make it?” He fled the job without collecting his last paycheque and has been out of work ever since.
“It just all builds up. I’m single now. I'm raising my kids alone and I’m in counselling,” said Machelle, fighting back tears.
The fire brings up complicated emotions for the father. On the one hand, remembering those moments of panic still scare him; on the other, when he thinks back to the evacuation, Machelle remembers being together with his wife and children.
“Today, she’s visiting the kids and it’s really hard,” he told Glacier Media Tuesday.
“I just want to hug her.”
SMOKE TRIGGERS OLD FEARS
Several residents of the Lytton area have reported smoke from prescribed burns in recent weeks. Many say it has reawakened old fears kindled during the June fire.
The BC Wildfire Service has two prescribed burns planned in the area. But fire information officer Aydan Coray confirmed neither had begun as of March 29.
“It’s kind of play it by ear and make sure everything is lined up before it goes ahead,” said Coray, pointing to the right conditions that would allow smoke to dissipate.
But according to the B.C. government’s Open Fire Tracking System, which tracks burn permits in the province, and posts on social media, several prescribed fires conducted by individuals were set last week.
When Machelle smelled smoke last week, he ran outside thinking his house was on fire. At first, he noticed a haze.
“And then all of a sudden you could see ashes start landing around us,” he said.
Machelle says he didn’t see a warning posted to Facebook that the burn would go ahead until after it had begun. Coray confirmed such burns don’t usually require the permit holders to notify anyone.
In the nine months since the June wildfire, Machelle says his eight-year-old daughter was only just settling down into a predictable rhythm after remote schooling in the fall, a recent COVID-19 outbreak at school, and spring break meant limited access to in-person schooling.
The smoke from last week’s prescribed burn instantly brought back old memories for the eight-year-old. When the ashes started falling, Machelle says Leah cowered in fear, and as he pulled her in close, she had tears in her eyes.
“I didn't know what to do,” he said. “I just held her, told her what it was and she said, ‘I’m still scared.’”
Leah stayed close to the window, close enough to see if the fire would come for them.
“You can see the facial expressions on their face. It's almost like it was yesterday sometimes,” said the father.
So far, Machelle’s five-year-old son appears to be coping, he says.
But he worries the trauma of the evacuation, of the fire, could come out later in his son’s life.
“That's what scares me the most. He's so young that one day it'll hit him and he won't know what it is.”
MORE SUPPORT FOR KIDS IN DISTRESS
A spokesperson for Emergency Management BC told Glacier Media the province has partnered with the Canadian Red Cross (CRC) to provide assistance to people affected by the 2021 fires. That includes financial support and ongoing help with interim housing and living expense.
“The CRC provides additional supports through a case-management approach that can support planning for a return home, understanding insurance and community resources and financial assistance to access mental health service,” wrote the spokesperson.
Some of those supports are provided at a pop-up relief centre at a school in town.
But UVic researcher Gifford says the government and other institutions providing counselling services are only just starting to get their head around mental health in an age of climate change. Many, he says, are so busy it's hard to convince them to add another layer of training.
“I don’t know how to solve this problem when we can’t even find family physicians,” he said.
Machelle says few mental health supports have trickled down to his children after the fire. Until now, there’s been nothing outside of school, he says, and he worries there are a number of other children suffering who don’t even know it.
“They could set a program up at a gym or something where they can go in, colour and talk about what fire is and what happened,” he said.
“You know, get them back to playing and being kids without the feeling that something bad is gonna happen.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, help is available. Call 1-800-784-2433 or visit www.crisiscentrechat.ca.