Seth Forward, Wildfire smoke, 2021

Young adult, standing in front of a house
Featured submission

Seth is a journalism student at Langara College. Growing up in Ottawa, Ontario, he played soccer in his free time, something he enjoys to this day, and was known for being a troublemaker. “I speak my mind sometimes too often, and I could use a better filter,” says Seth.

He also didn’t enjoy school growing up and often missed classes but still ended up being accepted into a journalism program at Trent University. Seth says his vice principal didn't believe that would ever happen. “Me getting into a university was a celebration,” he says.

But the journalism program at Trent didn’t agree with him: “The program was poorly set up. I think there was like forty people in the program and there was one person by the third year.” Instead, he became fascinated with history and switched his major, focusing on European history. “It's really interesting learning about ethnic tensions: how people that are neighbours could literally just kill each other.”

Seth also likes to do things outside. The winter before he went tree-planting, Seth spent some time skiing and working at Whistler Blackcomb. “Some of my best days ever have just been skiing on a really nice powder day, it's also the friends that you make out there.” Seth now lives in East Vancouver with his roommates and spends most of his time attending classes for a one-year certificate program in journalism at Langara College.

Northern Alberta, Canada - I'd had some friends that were big into planting and had tried to get me out earlier. I had always wanted to go but, for some reason, it just never happened until I graduated.  I thought this will be a cool opportunity.  It was the romantic time of my hippie life where I wore tie dye all the time, and my hair was super long.

We drove from near Canmore to Slave Lake, which is way far north. There’s some lakes and bogs, but it's pretty flat. You can plant a lot. My initial thought when we were driving into it was, “Holy fuck, this is a shithole.” There were dragonflies, horse flies, anything you can imagine, stuck in my vents. I've never seen horse flies like that, massive horse flies, and there's just thousands of them.

Once we got to Spray Lake, I wasn’t sleeping at all. I would have to wake up at 4:30 am. Then I was working all day in the sun. It was stupid hot. It was like forty degrees. I used to get the thing where I'd be woozy. I’d be speaking gibberish, slurring my words and stuff.

I never realized how bad it was until people around me would be like, “Man you're making zero sense right now.” It's already a job that makes you a little wonky. You push yourself to do stupid things when there's money. you just think, “Oh, whatever, just keep planting. You're there to make money.”

One girl got heatstroke, and she got a black-eye from when she fell. She just passed out and was in the hospital for like four days. She wasn't even a planter. She was a checker. It was so hot one day that the wax on the boxes we got the trees off had burned off. That's not normal, man. You shouldn't be working in that.

It was interesting, the camp was divided. Half were like, “Man, we shouldn't be working in this. This is fucked.” And then the other half are like, “Yeah, get me out there. I want to make money.” I have no clue how we got out of there without serious damage. 

It felt like everywhere else we went it was hazy too. It was pretty much a summer of just drowning  smoke. There wasn't really any escape from it. You'd look into the sun and it's just bright orange-pinkish. You can see straight into it and it just looks like a Mars sun or something.

The smoke wasn't good on the lungs. It felt like I was smoking twice as many cigarettes as I was. I just got used to it. The day I remember the most is the day we couldn't get the helicopters up because it was too smoky. He was like, zero chance am I going up in that. It was just the smoke. It was just like a storm. We couldn't work that day. Everyone was just ecstatic to leave there. Super happy to leave.

I came back and my nose was literally a tap for months. And it's still kind of is. I'm on a bus and I've got shit coming out of my nose, and I'm like, “Man, this looks awful.” My breathing is shit. You can even hear a wheeze. I've gone to like three different doctors. I've got puffers. I've got nose drips and that kind of shit. It's harder to do shit that I like, which really sucks.

You don't just get all these crazy lung problems just from smoking, at least I don't think so.  No doctor's diagnosed this or anything like that but I don't know what else it is. I've theorised with my mom a lot. I definitely think it was a combination of COVID, me smoking, and mostly the wildfire. I smoked a fair amount before planting. But, at the age of twenty-four, that doesn’t just happen. I can't see anything else other than the wildfire being the main cause.

For me, I got lucky compared to someone that had their family drowned in a flood or had their house taken out by a tornado. Something that has really affected my life is pretty low on that scale, which is wild. I definitely feel let down by our leaders. It's not like the knowledge of human contributing climate change is this new phenomenon. We've known about this for ages, it's just people don't want to do anything. I've been a consumer for twenty-four years and, in the upper echelon of consumers in history, I can't say too much. Kind of like, shit, man, this sucks.

by Seth Forward as told to Nicholas Naylor (edited by Sean Holman)