People are losing their homes to wildfires. They are dealing with floods. Their loved ones are dying in extreme heat. Their houses are falling into the sea.
Climate change is no longer theoretical. It’s in our backyard.
Here are four snapshots of this new reality — and what we’re doing about it.
The only thing I’m thinking is my mama burning alive, and she’ll be crying out my name.
When John Bino learned that a wildfire was closing in on his home in Fort McMurray’s Abasand neighbourhood on May 3, 2016, he was at work — one and a half hours away.
John Bino holds up the framed number of his house in Fort McMurray.
John Bino holds up the framed number of his house in Fort McMurray, which burned to the ground in the 2016 wildfire. (Craig Chivers/CBC)
He called home and told his wife, Jenny Solidum, to gather their two young boys and go to a friend’s place in nearby Timberlea. In the meantime, Bino would drive back to the house to retrieve his 76-year-old mother, who was visiting from India. She was a polio survivor and too heavy for his wife to lift.
But by the time he arrived at home, police had barricaded the road. Bino pleaded with them to let him through.
“I said, ‘My mom, she’s handicapped, she cannot move. She doesn’t speak the language. She’s stuck. She has no idea what’s happening. We need to rescue her and the door is locked.'”
Police assured him his mother would be rescued and told him to go. Bino waited hours at a nearby evacuation centre. But Solidum kept calling him, in a panic, as the fire approached Timberlea.
“I had to make a decision, right? To take care of my wife and kids or to take care of my mom.” Bino decided to rejoin his family. But as they fled north from evacuation centre to evacuation centre and eventually onto a flight to Calgary, Bino made frantic phone calls to 911 and the Red Cross. No one knew anything about his mother’s whereabouts.
Bino tried not to dwell on reports that Abasand was burning. “The only thing I’m thinking is my mama burning alive, and she’ll be crying out my name.”
Two days after being forced to abandon his home, Bino got a surprise phone call. A doctor at Leduc Community Hospital, just outside Edmonton, asked if he knew someone named Salimma Michael, who had been airlifted to safety.
“I was so relieved, my knees were shaking,” Bino said. The family rushed to Edmonton, and arrived at the hospital to visit Michael the next morning.
When Bino and Solidum bought the house in Abasand back in 2014, they loved the fact that the neighbourhood was on a hill surrounded by forest. “The trails were great. And it was peaceful and quiet,” Bino said. “No one ever mentioned [anything] about forest fires being a risk.”
Infographic showing the number of hectares burned by wildfires each year across Canada. Source: National Forestry Database
There has been a “significant increase” in the area burned by wildfires each year across Canada, Environment Canada reports. On average, wildfires in Canada have been burning 2.5 million hectares a year (nearly half the area of Nova Scotia) — double the 1970s average. B.C. and Alberta have been bearing the brunt of that increase.
Source: National Forestry Database
Climate change has increased the risk of major wildfires by extending the fire season by several weeks and generating hotter, drier conditions that support more extreme, fast-burning fires. The Fort McMurray fire in 2016, nicknamed “The Beast,” led to the largest wildfire evacuation in Canadian history. By the time it was extinguished that August, the fire had destroyed 6,000 square kilometres and caused $3.8 billion in insured damage alone.
When Bino and Solidum finally returned to the house, it was among 2,400 buildings that had burned to the ground. Almost everything the family owned was gone — from their children’s first locks of hair to a medal of valour Bino’s late father had received from the Indian navy.
The events of those few, intense days changed Bino’s perspective. “You know, we got our mom back. So to hell with the stuff, right?” But their struggles weren’t over. Solidum was so traumatized by the event, and the guilt of leaving Bino’s mother behind, that for more than a year, she became shell-shocked and unresponsive whenever she heard sirens or saw flashing lights.
Ashy remains of Bino’s neighbourhood after the wildfire had been extinguished.
This photo of the Abasand neighbourhood after the fire was taken by John Bino’s neighbour, Peter Fortna, when residents were allowed to return and look for belongings that may have survived. (Peter Fortna)
Bino also suffered. He was laid off from his engineering job, and once the family had settled in Edmonton, he got a position that required a five-hour commute back to Fort McMurray. Bino ended up quitting that job to care for his mother, but the situation eventually became untenable, and he was forced to send his mother back to India.
In spite of the trauma, Bino said the whole experience left him with a deep sense of gratitude for his family’s safety and care.
“The government, people — everybody was so helpful. It was amazing. It was like … how do people care about each other so damn much here?”
Adapting to wildfires
Climate change is the biggest and most significant factor behind the increase in wildfire risk and damage, said Laura Stewart, president of Firesmart Canada, which provides tools to communities to reduce the risks and impacts of wildfires.
But the development of industry and housing in forested or grassland areas also plays a role — as illustrated by Fort McMurray’s Abasand neighbourhood, which is surrounded by boreal forest.
Boreal forests contain trees like jack pine and lodgepole pine, whose seed cones only open when exposed to heat, and are reliant on wildfires to regenerate.
Natural Resources Canada estimates the cost of managing wildfires has been rising about $120 million per decade since 1970, to an annual cost of up to $1 billion in recent years.
Governments and communities can reduce the risks and impacts of wildfires by:
Imposing fire bans or even forest closures to shut down industrial operations when the risk of fires is high.
Thinning or removing conifer trees in surrounding communities to reduce the risk of crown fires, which spread from treetop to treetop, and are the most intense and dangerous wildland fires.
Creating fire breaks around communities, such as golf courses and soccer fields.
Burying power lines to eliminate the risk of them starting fires (as happened in California in 2018).