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West Kelowna fire chief’s harrowing tale opens eyes at United Nations

Canada’s wildfires take global centre stage at event aimed at putting a price on pollution
West Kelowna fire Chief Jason Brolund speaks at the Global Carbon Pricing Challenge event at the United Nations, Wednesday, September 20, 2023 in New York. The federal government is hoping Canada’s devastating wildfire season sparks momentum for carbon pricing at the United Nations.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The federal government is hoping Canada’s devastating wildfire season sparks momentum for carbon pricing at the United Nations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was the big draw at a UN event Wednesday aimed at encouraging countries to put a price on pollution.

But two of the heroes from a fearsome summer of wildfires ended up stealing the show.

West Kelowna fire Chief Jason Brolund’s harrowing story of a 36-hour battle to keep the flames out of his B.C. city earned a partial standing ovation.

And assistant Halifax fire Chief Sherry Dean described how some of her crew members pulled people to safety as their homes went up in flames.

Trudeau used the moment to promote carbon pricing as a way for the leaders of UN member countries to stand by their first responders.

It was “36 hours that felt like 100 years,” Brolund said as he described his marathon shift in mid-August fighting the blazes that were threatening his community in the B.C. Interior.

A fellow B.C. fire chief, Darren Lee, “said during this fire that firefighters have been warriors for thousands of years, stepping up to protect their villages,” Brolund said.

“But today, these warriors are doing things that we never imagined, on a scope and scale it’s nearly impossible for us to be successful against.”

The money that went into that herculean firefighting effort — about $20 million, by Brolund’s account — is being spent “on the wrong end of the problem,” he said.

“What could we have accomplished if we use that same amount of money proactively?”

The event, a late-day gathering after a busy day at UN headquarters, took place in a pop-up nature sanctuary on the campus, designed to showcase the body’s effort to kick-start sustainable development.

Birdsong chirped over the loudspeakers as guests entered a makeshift boreal paradise, complete with leafy plant life, man-made mist and a high-definition greenspace backdrop, swaying in an invisible breeze.

Dean described how two firefighters requested a pickup truck — the conditions were too harsh for a fire engine — so they could go door-to-door ensuring residents were out of harm’s way.

“They went into homes that were burning and grabbed a gentleman out of his home as the home itself was engulfed in flames,” she said.

“If it were not for the heroic efforts of those men, that life would have been lost.”

Trudeau hailed their efforts and that of their respective departments, and also acknowledged the deaths of four firefighters who died in a head-on crash early Tuesday in northern B.C.

“First responders on the front lines understand that ambitious collective action to tackle climate change is now a matter of survival,” he said.

“Climate action can be hard, but as leaders, you’re here today because you know that it matters and that it works.”

Putting a price on carbon has been central in helping Canada “bend the curve,” he said, touting the country’s emissions-reduction record as the best in the G7.

He said Canada’s Global Carbon Pricing Challenge, which encourages countries to adopt similar mechanisms, is gaining steam, with Norway, Denmark, Vietnam and Côte d’Ivoire coming aboard.

Climate has been a dominant theme of the UN General Assembly so far this year, along with the grinding war in Ukraine and its global reverberations.

Today, Trudeau will focus on a different geopolitical crisis, this one in Haiti, where stable government is non-existent, gang violence is rampant and cholera stalks the citizenry.

He’ll sit down with Haitian officials and preside over an ad hoc advisory group moderated by Bob Rae, Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations, before a closing news conference.

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