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.
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."
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.
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).
On the first day of her summer vacation in July 2013, Gerri Grossi Capizzano woke from a nap to a swishing sound in the basement of her north Toronto bungalow. When she looked downstairs, she thought she was hallucinating.
"All of a sudden, I see a flood of green water and the stench was atrocious," the 50-year-old recalled. "It was up on maybe the third, fourth step."
She ran outside to find her neighbours screaming and tossing brown water out of their homes with pails. Amid a sudden deluge of rain, sewers had backed up into the basements of everyone on the street. Capizzano stood on her veranda crying as the rain pelted down.
Her basement ended up being submerged in a metre of sewage water for hours, soaking and destroying kitchen appliances, the furnace, furniture and all the childhood keepsakes she had stored for her daughter, Brianna (who is now 20).
"Baby photos. All her cribs, her chairs. All her toys and stuff like that...everything was floating in sewage water," Capizzano recalled. "That really hurt. I can buy a new fridge, I can buy a new stove. But I can never buy her memories."
The 2013 flood generated $830 million in insurance claims, making it the costliest natural disaster ever in Ontario.
Capizzano grew up a couple of blocks away. In her 40 years in the neighbourhood, she had never heard of any of the homes flooding.
Climate change is making extreme rainfall a more frequent occurrence. Storms that historically happened only once every 50 years are now projected to occur every 35 years. By the end of the century, they could happen once every 12 years on average, according to a recent climate report from Environment Canada. All this increases the potential for urban flooding.
In many cities like Toronto, aging infrastructure is struggling to cope with more intense rainfall, especially as new building developments strain sewage systems and parking lots are paved over wetlands and other natural environments that could be used to help control floods.
Since 2009, the cost of Canadian insurance claims for "catastrophic" extreme weather events (those that generate at least $25 million in insurable losses) has jumped to an average of $1.8 billion annually — and flooding is to blame for more than half the increase, says Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo. The figures have been adjusted for both inflation and per capita wealth accumulation. Feltmate notes they represent only insured losses, or about a third or quarter of the total costs -- many flood victims end up paying much more out-of-pocket.
Source: Insurance Bureau of Canada
Capizzano had about $40,000 in insurance coverage, which she mainly used to pay a restoration company for cleanup and to replace her appliances. As required by her insurer, Capizzano installed a backflow preventer and disconnected her downspouts. Meanwhile, the City of Toronto upgraded the local sewers. Only then did Capizzano repair her basement.
The family spent $100,000 on renovations, including new drywall, a new staircase, custom doors and baseboards. And then, during another heavy rainfall in August 2018, she heard her husband, Romeo, cry out when he went into the basement.
Sewage water poured from the drains, the toilet and the shower. The family frantically bailed and pumped water through the windows. But their insurance company, which had already increased their premiums by thousands of dollars, told them they'd be ineligible for basement flooding insurance if they made a claim so soon after the previous one.
This time, the city offers no reassurance. "They tell us it's going to happen again. It's just a matter of when," Capizzano said.
Now, she and her family have become obsessed with weather apps. A wet forecast sends them rushing home. "Everytime it rains, my husband [says], 'Did you go downstairs? Did you go look?' Who can live like that? Always on the edge?"
In the basement, Capizzano has replaced the beautiful cast iron dining set destroyed in the last flood with cheap folding tables and chairs. But no one sits in them, or even comes downstairs. "I always feel it smells," she said. "I don't take joy in being in my basement anymore."
Capizzano is frustrated at the city's inability to fix the problem. But she warns that flooding is a problem in many cities across Canada, and urges homeowners to make sure they have good insurance for basement flooding.
"Be warned, because this can happen to anyone. And it's a real devastation if it does."
Adapting to flooding
Warmer air holds more moisture, and because of that, warmer temperatures can produce more frequent and intense rains.
The risk of flooding doesn't just exist for people who live near rivers or flood plains. Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, said cities across Canada have paved and built over wetlands and other "natural infrastructure" that could otherwise absorb and slow the rush of floodwaters into overloaded sewer systems.
"All of these factors work in combination to contribute to flooding."
To stem the tide, governments can take several measures:
- Ban construction on flood plains and design diversion channels, cisterns, stormwater ponds and berms to control water flow.
- Provide better forecasts and warnings based on gauges in urban waterways.
- Update maps that show changing flood risk in different areas.
Homeowners can also do a few simple things to reduce their susceptibility to flooding:
- Regularly clean eavestroughs and nearby storm drains.
- Extend and disconnect downspouts.
- Install and maintain equipment like window well covers, sump pumps and backwater valves.
- Ensure a slope directs water away from your home's foundation.
Carina Houle grew up in a second-floor apartment that was hot and steamy during summer heat waves. But the heat was uncomfortable, not deadly. So she was shocked when the heat felled and killed her mother.
The last time Carina Houle saw her mother, she was giggly and energetic. To Houle, she seemed so full of life.
"When you know that a person passed away and it wasn't her time," Houle said, becoming reflective. "I just feel like I lost, I'd say, a good 15 years of her."
Diane Brouillet died on July 5, 2018, amid a Montreal heat wave that caused temperatures to surge to 35.5 C — or more than 40 C with the humidex. Sixty-six people across the city died in the heat.
The 73-year-old Brouillet was in her stuffy second-floor apartment in the Montreal suburb of Lasalle. It's located on a street where homes are densely packed between thin strips of grass, butting up against black asphalt driveways and roadways, which store heat and release it slowly, making it even hotter.
On especially sweltering days, Houle would invite her mother to stay with her family in their air-conditioned split-level bungalow in St-Bruno-de-Montarville, about 30 minutes away. But last summer, her mother refused every time.
Houle recalled that shortly after Canada Day, she said to her mother, "'Maman, they're announcing [it's going to be] so warm tomorrow and after tomorrow...' I said, 'Please, I'll pick you up at night. We'll do something.' She said, 'I'll let you know. But for now, I'm okay.'"
They told each other "I love you," said their good-byes — and never spoke again. About 48 hours later, Houle's aunt called to say Brouillet wasn't answering her phone. Houle rushed to her mother's apartment, only to find the police already there. They confirmed it was too late.
The temperature in the apartment was 42 C.
"You know, you tell her to get out, 'cause you say it's dangerous, and you feel that she's just going to get sick and we're going to have to bring her to the hospital," said Houle. "You do not think she's going to pass away."
Heat waves are nothing new, but in the future, cities are only expected to get hotter — if carbon emissions keep rising, Canada's average temperatures are expected to be 6 C warmer by the end of the 21st century than they were between 1986 and 2005. Such temperatures are especially deadly for vulnerable groups such as infants and children, the elderly and people with health conditions like respiratory illnesses, diabetes and schizophrenia.
Houle, who grew up in the apartment in Lasalle, remembers how "uncomfortable and sticky" it could get in the summer, particularly at night. "Sometimes we'd get a bit of a breeze, but that was it. I learned to sleep with fans."
Extreme heat forecast
This is a comparison of the average number of days each year above 30 degrees Celsius between 1976 and 2005, and the projected period of 2051-2080 from the average of 12 different climate models assuming a future with high greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere. (The projections were done by the Prairie Climate Centre at the University of Winnipeg for the Climate Atlas of Canada.)
Source: Climate Atlas of Canada
Houle thinks her mother didn't notice that it had grown hotter since then, and probably didn't realize that her aging body was less able to recognize and tolerate extreme heat than before.
"Obviously the heat has always been a factor," Houle said. "But nothing like now."
Adapting to extreme heat
Extreme temperatures are hitting many communities in Canada — and checking in on vulnerable family members won't be enough to stem the projected increase in heat-related deaths and hospitalizations that will come with climate change.
One key phenomenon is the urban heat island effect. Cities are often measurably warmer than surrounding rural areas, because they are built with lots of materials (asphalt, concrete) that absorb heat — especially if they’re dark in colour — and release it very slowly.
Officials at the municipal level are looking at larger-scale adaptations including:
- Planting more trees. They provide shade and cool the air, because the leaves absorb heat. Some cities, such as Toronto, also encourage green roofs — vegetation planted on rooftops helps cool the building it sits on, reduces the urban heat island effect and lessens stormwater runoff.
- Using buildings. Some cities, such as New York, have painted rooftops white to reflect sunlight, which reduces building temperatures. Many municipalities also designate certain buildings, such as libraries, as air-conditioned cooling centres during heat waves.
- Heat warnings. Some communities have heat alerts to warn people of extreme temperatures and provide information about where they can go to cool down, but they're far from universal and are challenging to communicate in rural areas, said Peter Berry, a Health Canada policy analyst who studies the capacity of cities to adapt to climate change. Some cities monitor vulnerable residents. During the 2018 heat wave in Montreal, police and firefighters knocked on doors to check on people in need, but said they want to make such efforts more targeted and effective in the future.
Back when Sandy Adam and his wife, Sarah, were children in Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., half a century ago, the coast of the hamlet stretched a good half-kilometre farther into the Arctic Ocean. In summer, there was plenty of beach to play on.
When they moved into their home in an area of town known as "the Point" 25 years ago, the lot had a huge yard. It contained a large shed where Sandy stored his boats and sleds. Next door was a curling rink and, a little farther down, a warehouse.
Since then, most of the yard has been eaten away by the Beaufort Sea. Sarah estimated it has been moving an arm's length closer every year, and could soon claim the house itself.
"It's only about six feet from our house now," Sandy Adam estimated. The 64-year-old said it's "getting pretty dangerous to live here anymore."
As for the curling rink and the warehouse — where they once stood, it's just water and ice.
Tuktoyaktuk — or Tuk, as it's known locally — lies on a peninsula dotted with lakes. The sea has always gnawed at its coastline. But climate change, which has warmed Canada's Arctic by 2.3 degrees Celsius since 1948 — three times the global average — has given the ocean more strength to erode the shore. Sea ice that used to restrain the ocean waves in winter no longer freezes like it used to, leaving the waves to wreak more havoc.
During storms, they smash into the rocks right beside the Adams' house. To make matters worse, the sea level is rising. Meanwhile, the permafrost that once strengthened and stabilized the land is thawing and also weakening the coast.
The Adams share their small prefab house on Beaufort Drive with one of their sons, his common-law wife and their six children, along with two of Sarah's brothers. Sandy not only laments his shrinking yard but worries about the safety of his grandchildren, who like to scamper along the beach, below the boulders that were brought in to stabilize the collapsing shore.
"They're playing on the rocks and … huge boulders might fall on them," he said.
Sarah Adam said the erosion began to speed up in 2011. "Since then, it's been eroding two, three feet and more, some years," the 60-year-old said.
She's been pleading and negotiating with local officials for the last two or three years to move their house. "There's not going to be any time left soon enough," she said. "We'll be in the water."
Sandy would prefer to find a way to stabilize the homes on his street so they don't have to be moved. He has lived on this side of Tuk all his life, and loves the view.
"What I'm going to miss the most is the ocean," he said. "Every morning I check to see if anything is going by my house, like whales or seals travelling. I can see boats coming in from out hunting, and it's amazing."
Some other homes on Beaufort Drive have already been relocated farther inland. But no one has confirmed when the Adams' home will be rescued from its seemingly inevitable drift into the ocean.
The local authorities "come and check [the house]," said Sarah. "They come and take pictures of the interior, how many times?"
Addressing the local government, she said it's time for action. "Do it. Help us move."
Additional reporting by Mia Sheldon and Susan Ormiston
Adapting to a warmer Arctic
Across the Arctic, thawing permafrost — and, often, the rapid erosion that results — is damaging roads, airport runways, pipes and buildings and posing hazards to health and safety.
Kevin McLeod, assistant deputy minister of asset management for the Northwest Territories, said his government is monitoring infrastructure for damage like dips and cracks, and analyzing the risks. His government has already taken a number of steps to mitigate the effects, including:
- Reinforcing the Inuvik-Tuk highway, which is vital for the delivery of goods, so it uses plastic instead of steel culverts to reduce heating of the surrounding permafrost.
- New buildings, which are typically raised above the ground to stop them from heating the underlying permafrost, are on more and bigger stilts.
More investments, however, need to be made in things like search and rescue and emergency management, said James Ford, Priestley Chair in Climate Adaptation at the University of Leeds, who does research in Canada’s North. Ford also believes that making sure traditional Indigenous knowledge — such as survival skills and how to identify dangerous conditions — gets passed on to younger generations.
"This knowledge is extremely important for adapting to climate change."