Living with Smoke: A Comic for the Fire Season

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Each year, British Columbia’s (BC) wildfire seasons force us to reckon with two stories about fire that are simultaneously true. With drought conditions persisting in the West, we know that this year’s fires will be damaging and even deadly. BC is still reeling from the record-breaking 2023 season, and fires have been burning out of control in the North since early spring. Three years after the Lytton fire on June 30, 2021, the community is still feeling its impacts. The harms are also indirect: new science shows that 50,000 people died prematurely due to wildfire smoke exposure over the last decade in California.

A second story is also true. We know that we need more fire to produce healthy, bio-diverse ecosystems. Failing to burn debris risks creating explosive accumulations of fuels on the land that pose direct risks to communities and creates even larger, more dangerous wildfires. Fire is both dangerous and necessary — a deadly hazard we somehow must (re)learn to live with. In BC, First Nations are leading the way in reimagining a relationship with fire through prescribed and cultural burning projects aimed at putting fire back on the land to promote the growth of desirable species while mitigating risk in proximity to communities.1

In 2023, I worked with Petroglyph Studios to create Living with Smoke: Lessons from the Chinchaga Fire. Living with Smoke began as my way of grappling with these two stories of fire. The comic follows a massive smoke plume that rose up from Dane-zaa land in the Peace River district of BC and spread around the whole northern hemisphere in the fall of 1950.

From my office in southern Norway, I traced smoke from the Chinchaga plume (and other plumes that rose from northern forests in the 20th century) from Canada to Scotland, Germany, Sweden, Russia, and Alaska. Over time, ash from big fires has settled in layers in arctic ice and lakebed mud. Scientists use cores taken from these materials to identify significant fire years. The Chinchaga fire appears in these records as a dark layer between sheets of ice and sediment. Using the dates of known smoke events from scientific studies, I searched archives, historic newspapers, and journals for human accounts of transient smoke to better understand how smoke was observed and interpreted by people who lived under its haze at different times and in different places.

As people around the world breathed in Chinchaga smoke and watched it colour the sky, they told different stories about its origins and meanings. Those stories were based on their experiences and understandings about the world. The archival record shows that, although the meanings we ascribe to them change, experiences like living under a hazy red sun, tasting ash on our tongues, and thinking about distant burning forests are a regular part of our human experience.

Story-telling is how we make sense of our world, particularly when that world becomes disorienting. Fires like Chinchaga have become more frequent since 1950. In the last decade, satellites have traced wildfire smoke across the Atlantic almost every year, meaning that more people than ever are breathing smoke from Canadian fires. In 2024, we are already telling stories about the coming fire season as we attempt to make sense of a fire prone environment that seems to hold many contradictions. When we do, we might consider how our experiences are historically constituted. The way we think about red suns and hazy skies is a product of our expectations about our environment and a relationship with fire that has been built over time.

Drawing on historical experience can allow us to imagine a better future with fire — one where many cool burns connect us to disturbance cycles, clearing debris and making room for new growth. When we can tell stories about fire that embrace its inherent contradictions, we might be better equipped to mitigate its harms.

comic cover reads "Living with Smoke: Lessons from the Chinchaga Fire." There are pine cones in the foreground, and a fire burning in the background.
Four comic panes show a growing wildfire over the summer and fall of 1950. The text reads "This is the story of the Chinchaga firestorm. A burn so big and so violent it sent smoke around the entire northern hemisphere."
Four panels show people observing smoke. A person in a canoe says "someone lives here." A person in a snowy meadow says: "in the spring, we will find moose grazing there." A person in a diner looking at a city-scape says "this place is unhealthy" and a person reading the news says "Must be those Canadian Forest fires I saw on the news...or is the factories again?" In the background, text reads: "In the past, people used smoke to make sense of what was happening on the land -- to read the environment. But in 1950, the smoke plume was so big and travelled so far that no one knew what to make of it."
Panel one reads: "In Hamburg, Germany, people saw Chinchaga smoke and thought: "its pollution from West German coal mines." It shows a woman in a city with a shopping basket. Panel two reads: "In Stockholm, Sweden: It could be from dust from a volcanic eruption in Japan." It shows a man entering the Tunnelbana. The third panel reads: "In Norway: Its ice crystals in the atmosphere." It shows a man hiking in the mountains. The forth panel shows a plane flying above the forest. It reads: "Eventually, the world learned the real reason for the strange smoke: The 1.5 million hectare wildfire burning in Northern Canada. In those days, fires like Chinchaga were rare."
Panel one: "These days we get smoke like Chinchaga every year." It shows a woman under the San Francisco Bridge. She's wearing a gas mask and says "the world is on fire."
Panel two: From a watchtower someone yells "Fire!!" The text reads: And for almost a century we have worked hard to eliminate smoke from our daily lives. In general, breaking less smoke has made our communities healthier."
A bottom panel shows firefighters working and reads "but in the forest total suppression of forest fires created a tinderbox which interrupted the natural fire disturbance regimes and became more and more explosive."
A single page shows pinecones opening, salmon smoking, hands picking blueberries, and deer grazing. It reads: "in the future we are going to have to live with smoke. The question is: how much? Before suppression, we lived with a lot of small smokes which were important for both ecological and cultural health. Many small smokes created food for people and animals and kept invasive species in check."
A series of panels shows a woman walking through a forest and picking apples. "It also meant less fuel for wildfires to burn." The woman says, "I love the smell of fall!"
A final panel shows people lighting fires with a drip torch. "There is a lesson from the past: If we can learn to see small smokes as a sign of a healthy environment we can make events like Chinchaga rare again."
The back cover of the comic reads: "The unprecedented scale and frequency of wildfire in the northern hemisphere has made smoke a seasonal occurrence in skies around the world. Over the last decade, ask regularly drifted from fires in Canada into northern Europe, altering forecasts on both continents, settling in Antarctic ice, and accelerating glacial melt rates. Although climate change has exacerbated smoke events in the twenty-first century, smoke seasons lie within a longer history of human0smoke interaction (wild and domestic) stretching back into deep time. This comic is part of a 2 year research project examining the history of transient wildfire smoke in the northern hemisphere as part of past and continuing environmental change. Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian working on natural resource issues in Canada and Scandinavia. Her work on forest fire is supported by a Marie Slodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. Find out more at"

Living with Smoke is part of “Wildsmoke,” a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Action funded by the European Commission and held at the University of Stavanger between 2021 and 2023.


1. For a recent example, see the Boothroyd Indian Band’s Cultural Burn Project.

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Mica Jorgenson is an environmental historian of natural resources in Canada. She works in both the academic and public sectors, and teaches periodically at the University of Northern British Columbia.

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