When Liz Gowrie was planning to join her husband from Africa in rural northern Quebec, she was assured that Canada would be a quiet country.
But on Wednesday, the couple were among dozens of stunned people at an evacuation center after they were forced to flee wildfires that ripped through the entire city where they lived.
Fires have ripped through forests and their city of Chibougama, one of countless Canadian communities affected by the extraordinary wildfires, whose smoke has blotted skies across North America and forced millions indoors due to hazardous air quality.
Growing up in the Republic of the Congo, Mrs. Gouri and her husband, Ray Steve Mabiala, said they are familiar with all kinds of displacement — they once fled fighting to hide in the tropical jungle — and how floods and droughts have worsened as climate change is causing major displacements on the continent.
“Back home in Africa, there are many climate refugees, but I never thought I would be one in Canada,” said Mr. Mabiala, 42, who arrived in Canada in 2018 and was joined by Ms. Gowri, 39, last month. After he became a permanent resident and sponsored her entry into the country.
With three months left in Canada’s wildfire season, fires have already burned 10 times more acres of land than burned at this time last year. The size and intensity of the fires are believed to be related to drought and heat caused by the changing climate.
Fires are burning in forests in all Canadian provinces and territories except Prince Edward Island and the province of Nunavut, the northernmost region above the tree line, where temperatures are too low for trees to survive.
“My wife keeps telling me, ‘But how can this happen? You always assured me that Canada is a peaceful country, but now we’re starting to flee like we’re back home,'” Mr. Mabiala said, looking at his wife, who stared blankly and muttered that she was “shocked.” .”
The outbreak hit not only western provinces traditionally prone to wildfires, but also eastern provinces such as Quebec, where multiple fires burning at once are rare and residents less experienced in evacuating from such fires.
Of the more than 400 fires now burning in Canada, more than a third are in Quebec, which has already had its worst wildfire season on record.
“It’s been a really exceptional year,” said Josie Poitras, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s wildfire prevention agency.
As even Canada’s coldest regions warm, rising temperatures and a “vapor-pressure deficit,” or lack of moisture in the air, are drying out trees, said Tanzina Mohsin, a professor of physical and environmental sciences at the university. of Toronto.
“We’re dealing with some unprecedented events, including droughts, accelerated fires and heat waves, and there will be more over time, especially wildfires,” Ms. Mohsin said.
The wildfires in Quebec were sparked by a lightning strike last week near Val-d’Or, about 200 miles southwest of Chibougamau, following an unusually dry spring, Ms. Poitras said, “In one day, we got 200. Alerts from people reporting that they saw smoke, and that led to more than a hundred fires, which gradually increased.
In Chibougamau — a city of 7,500 people 430 miles north of Montreal by road — city officials issued an evacuation order late Tuesday, hours after they said a firewall would contain the encroaching fire. But with the fire only 15 miles away and gaining momentum, residents jumped into vehicles and began heading south.
Many flocked to the city of Raberwal, about 150 miles southeast of Chibougamau. A drive that normally takes a couple of hours takes two to three times as long as a caravan of cars and trailers slows down the highway in the middle of the night.
“I have lived in Chibougamau for more than 40 years and I have never experienced a situation like this,” said Francis Cote, 71, who was staying with other evacuees at a sports center in Roberwall. “This is the first time I’ve had to evacuate because of a forest fire.”
Although residents in some parts of the city were forced to leave in 2005, all of Chibougamau was displaced due to wildfires.
Inside a large sports center where evacuees were sheltering, people sat and slept on cots, single suitcases beside them. Some brought their pets along.
Authorities have blocked all roads leading to Chibougamau and other areas threatened by the wildfires, and it is unclear when residents will be allowed to return or what they will find once they do.
In an odd twist, while smoke from the wildfires is spreading across the East Coast of the United States, there was no smell or visible smoke in Roberwall and other areas south of Chibougamau on Thursday.
A combination of factors, fire officials said, laid the groundwork for wildfires to spread in the Chibougamavu area: Freezing rain weighed down trees and littered the forest floor with broken branches; And unusually dry ground because the snow melted earlier than usual and there was little rain in the spring.
Built on a mining and logging industry, Chibougamau is one of the few bold names on the map of Quebec’s vast, sparsely populated northern regions. For many in Quebec, it is a mysterious place associated with remoteness and extreme cold.
But Chibougama is also suffering from the effects of global warming. Longtime residents said the relocation comes after years of change in their community.
After retiring as a mining worker a decade ago, Mr. Cote operates an outdoor skating rink in Chibougamau. Shorter months with below-freezing temperatures shorten the skating season, and erratic temperatures make it more difficult to maintain a clean, smooth ice surface.
“This year, there was a meltdown in January,” he said. “It melted, I had to start over and it took a week to remake the ice.”
“This is where we can really see that global warming is affecting us more and more,” Mr Cote added. “Every year, it gets worse.”
When Guy Boisvert, 79, moved to Chibougamau as a child, white fog blanketed much of the city in the winter as temperatures regularly dropped to minus 45 Fahrenheit. The winter was long, and May brought plenty of rain, making wildfires rare and manageable.
“Sometimes we see a small wildfire, and it lasts a day or two,” Mr. Boisvert said.
His wife, Shirley Gallon, 75, who has lived in Chibougamau for 53 years, said, “We never imagined we would have to move from Chibougamau.”
More recently, due to rising temperatures, the golf season in Chibougamau has gotten longer, said Jonathan Mattson, 42, a city councilor and avid golfer.
A couple of years ago, the golf season started a full month earlier in mid-April. Generally, the golf course is wet.
“But this year, when I walked the course, it was crisp – very dry,” Mr Mattson said.
But newcomers to Chibougamau like Mr. Mabiala from the Republic of Congo, who came to work in logging, were perhaps surprised.
Two women from the Philippines, Ruth Cabrera and Anna Huerte, said they experienced home evacuations after floods and volcanic eruptions.
The familiar fear of being at the mercy of natural forces beyond their control returned as wildfires turned the sky red and yellow as they approached Chibougamau.
Ms. Cabrera, 49, who works at a McDonald’s in Chibougamau, and Ms. Huerte, 38, who works in logging, said they had no idea how climate change could upend life in Canada.
The two women said their relatives in the Philippines were surprised to learn of their displacement.
“They were asking, “Oh, is there such a thing in Canada?’ ” said Mrs. Cabrera.