Should Nature Be Left Alone?

Émile is first and foremost passionate about the land, the great natural expanses and the communities that inhabit them. Eager to use his sensibility to create unique and unfiltered worlds, he works actively as a freelance cinematographer and director of photography on a multitude of projects combining people and nature.

Should Nature Be Left Alone?

As the first analytical developer for Altitude Sports, Sophie blends fun and work like few can. She dives headfirst into everything she does, whether it’s trail running, pottery or programming. Not one to turn down an adventure, her unstoppable drive pauses only for one thing: a delicious meal.

Should Nature Be Left Alone?

Words by Sophie Courtemanche-Martel and Oliver Rind

Should Nature Be Left Alone?

The resilience of the forest as seen by the outdoor community.

Youtube Video

“Fire is a natural phenomenon, a regulator. It's something we've always been aware of and have adapted to. In my youth, fires occurred roughly every ten years—the larger ones slightly more often. But today, large fires that once happened every hundred years happen almost annually.” 

Dale Tomma speaks with a voice that expresses the grief of having seen his homeland scorched by flames. He’s our guide for the day, and a member of the Skwlāx nation who've been living in the area for millennia. Behind his gaze lies the despair of a people who, for years, have had to deal with increasingly destructive fires. 

I’m in British Columbia, in Revelstoke, a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. This year, however, Revelstoke doesn’t appear to be a natural paradise, as it’s been experiencing its worst forest fire season in recorded history for the last few months. It’s not an anomaly; on the contrary, it’s a new reality the locals have to face and no longer begs the question of whether it’ll happen again. 

The question, for me, is what this means for the outdoor community, for those who help fight the fires, for the First Nations, and for the tourists who come every year to hike, climb, ski, and renew their spirit. Do we have to give them up if it means protecting nature? Do we need to leave the forest to regenerate on its own, far from any human activity? 

“An apocalyptic décor” 

It’s October 2023. The forest fires that have been burning since June have devastated Western Canada, with the worst season in terms of hectares destroyed in British Columbia. At first glance, it’s hard for me to understand the extent of the damage. But for Nat Segal, an athlete with Helly Hansen, mountain guide, and filmmaker, it’s all just a part of her daily life. She explains: “The fires have a direct impact on towns like Revelstoke. This year, the smoke was so dense that there were times when I couldn’t even see across the street. It was like the Apocalypse.” 

To better understand what forest fires mean to those who live under their constant threat, Nat takes me west to Salmon Arm, Chase, and Skwlāx, small communities located on the traditional lands of the Secwepemc Nation along the Trans-Canada Highway. She talks to me about the fire that ravaged the area some months ago and grew so intense that it ended up crossing the highway. 

"It directly affects my work. I have to constantly avoid areas where there are active fires. In fact, the whole ecosystem is changing. During summer, when I guide hikers, I’m often asked why there are no wildflowers. Climate fluctuations are becoming more and more intense; warmer temperatures are arriving much earlier, and flowers that normally bloom in summer have long since died."

For some, the wound goes even deeper. Dale, Nat’s longtime friend, guides us through the damage. A member of the Skwlāx te Secwepemcúl̓ecw band, he has trouble recalling the summer's events. “People had 45 minutes to get their things and leave their homes,” he reflects. “Some still haven't returned.” 

Around us, tall bare trees stretch their shadows across the ground. Ash crunches beneath our feet. Everything is burnt. There’s not a sound; the animals, birds, bears, and deer that have been an integral part of Dale’s world are gone. I raise the issue of industrial reforestation efforts in the Revelstoke area, and our guide explains that planting trees can fuel the problem—especially without the right knowledge. 

“The forestry industry may be planting trees, but these are fast-burning species that are not accustomed to fires in the way that trees in the region are. In fact, many native species even need fire to reproduce, as high temperatures open their cones and release the seeds. These trees know how to withstand fire; they bear scars from previous fires and have learned to deal with them. However, the industry always plants the same species, which doesn’t allow for natural diversity.” 

Under normal circumstances, trees recover from fires on their own, but the forest’s resilience is being compromised by the increasing frequency of fires. Working with First Nations to ensure sustainable forestry, so that the forest can regenerate, is essential. Dale and his community possess rich ancestral knowledge and know which types of tree to plant—such as trembling aspen or lodgepole pine, which regenerate quickly—and which to avoid, such as black spruce, which contains more resin and catches fire quickly. Aboriginal communities each have their own ways of fighting fire, rooted in their connection to the land. “Western scientific approaches try to find universal truths and create systems that work in all situations,” explains Nat Knowles, a climatologist, ecologist, and athlete based in Collingwood, Ontario. “One of the most important things we can learn from traditional knowledge is that every context is unique and must adapt to changes in the ecosystem and weather systems, which influence how fires are fought.” 

Broken records…and a collective awakening 

This year, the events in Western Canada echoed the catastrophe I experienced back home in Quebec. In 2023, the province was sadly famous for the wildfires that ravaged its northern regions. Images of New York, covered in a thick cloud of smoke coming from our home and obscured by an eerie orange halo, went around the world. For a while in June, Montreal was even the city with the worst air quality, eclipsing the usual titleholders in Asia and the Middle East. 

“2023 was a record year,” insists Nat Knowles. “In Canada, more than 16 million hectares went up in smoke (the annual average is around 2.5 million hectares). And it’s only going to get worse. In Eastern Canada, we’re likely to see a 200-300% increase in the frequency of fires!” 

Yet despite this, fires and disastrous air quality have succeeded in awakening the collective conscience. It’s hard to ignore such an intense phenomenon when it’s happening here at home. Nat Segal is convinced: “One of the most important things I can do is to communicate what I see happening in the forest with people who may not be aware of it.” 

It’s precisely this exchange of knowledge, between outdoor professionals, scientists, First Nations, and nature enthusiasts, that will be our best weapon against forest fires and climate change. Banning access to nature and leaving it alone is not the solution—on the contrary. The best example? Most fires are started by lightning and increasingly hot, dry weather. Human-caused fires are falling sharply, which shows the effectiveness of awareness campaigns. Besides, enjoying the outdoors responsibly is perfectly simple. 

“Learning about the area we’re going to visit is essential, and there are plenty of resources on the web,” Nat Segal points out. “Apps like AllTrails or Gaia GPS can also be very useful. I also like to use the Native Land app, which indicates which ancestral territory we’ll be visiting. It’s also absolutely necessary to know the weather conditions before setting off, especially during the fire season, which can force the movement of animals or the closure of certain areas. If a trail is closed to encourage regeneration of a forest affected by natural phenomena, respect the limits and stay off it. Lastly, be prepared for any eventuality! Even if you’re only going on a day hike, pack enough food, water, and a first-aid kit. And bring back absolutely everything you take with you.” 

In 2024, the wildfire season promises to be a difficult one. But there’s still hope that we’ve learned from our past mistakes and that together we can focus our efforts on conserving natural areas. We need to encourage people to get informed, but also to get out and about, hike, climb, ski—in short, to discover the nature we need to preserve. 

You can't protect what you don't know.

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