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Pearson College student escaped NWT wildfires, angered by lack of effort to tackle climate change

Kira Young, 17, says years of ignoring warnings about climate change are hitting many people close to home as communities burn

A Pearson College student says being back in class amid the calm of Vancouver Island is a surreal contrast to the horrifying scenes she escaped last week as her family evacuated the Northwest Territories bound for Edmonton.

“It’s like going from one world to another, coming from a place of crisis to a place of like total serenity,” said Kira Young, 17, a second-year student in the International Baccalaureate program offered at the college, located off Pedder Bay in Metchosin.

At 5 a.m. on Aug. 17, the day after the evacuation order came to the territorial capital of Yellowknife, Young and her family got in their vehicle, which had been packed up the night before, and headed toward the Alberta border. It was one of the hardest, most emotional days of her life.

The city of about 22,000 was rife with uncertainty and fear “and a lot of anger.”

“And what made it even more powerful was that every single person around felt the exact same, just this profound sadness that this is how far [climate change] has gotten and that now we’re having to try to fit our lives into the trunks of our cars,” said Young. “It was just sort of an unimaginable, apocalyptic-type situation.”

The family took Highway 3, called the Yellowknife or Northwest Territories Highway. Along the road the Youngs — Kira, her brother Zach, her father Matt, and her dog Chile — saw the results of several vehicle crashes from the previous day as people rushed to escape. Kira’s mother, physician Dr. Sarah Cook, stayed behind to help transfer patients out of the hospital. Her 11-year-old brother Solomon is visiting Ontario.

“We saw cars that were destroyed at the side of the road. People were panicking, they made poor choices on the road,” she said. “And we witnessed the kilometre-long lineup for the one gas station between Yellowknife and the Alberta border.”

The fire that threatens Yellowknife remains 15 kilometres away from the outskirts of town and there’s municipal, territorial and federal personnel on the ground “doing absolutely everything they can to protect the city,” she said.

Young said her anger over the fires comes from what she views as foot-dragging in response to years of warnings about the consequences of climate change.

“This level of damage is not normal and the conditions that we’re experiencing right now — the conditions that precipitated the fires — is not normal,” said Young.

“And what really makes me angry is that decisions to not pursue climate justice have led to the destruction of homes, the evacuation of over 63 per cent of my territory, the destruction of so much of our land, and also anger and fear that this is really just the beginning and this is going to go on so long as we don’t take more action.”

Young said the fires in Kelowna over the weekend came as another “gut-punch.”

“I know exactly how these people are feeling, I know the pain, I know the fear, I know the uncertainty,” said Young. “It’s so so sad that they had real damage to their community and I just feel so much sadness and a lot of empathy.”

Young’s hope is that the fires burning across B.C. and the Northwest Territories don’t spread further and the “the fear and the anger” over the catastrophic loss of homes and the dislocation of so many people works as “a catalyst for change.”

“I hope it’s a real wake-up call for our leaders, for our governments, for the whole population to see that we’re at the point now where the consequences are real and our people are threatened or our land is threatened and that this is an extremely, extremely pressing issue,” she said.

Young said there’s a sense of existentialism permeating her age group because the effects of climate change are no longer “conceptual” but have landed as a reality.

“Now it’s my home is threatened, the homes of so many others that I know that are threatened or destroyed,” said Young, “we see it everywhere around us so there’s a lot of fear.”

At the same time, Young said she feels “a lot of hope” as she’s also witnessing “the most passion I’ve ever seen” for climate action.

“There’s just this push and this willingness to sacrifice so much, and advocate so hard, because we know that this is just the beginning.”

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