When Liz Gouari was planning to move from Africa to join her husband in a rural stretch of northern Quebec, he promised her that Canada was a peaceful nation.
But on Wednesday, the couple were among dozens sitting in disbelief at an evacuation center after the entire city they lived in was forced to flee a raging fire.
The fire tore through the forest and engulfed their hometown of Chibougamau, one of countless Canadian communities affected by an extraordinary outbreak of wildfires whose smoke has darkened the skies over swathes of North America and forced millions to stay in home due to dangerous air quality.
Growing up in the Republic of Congo, Ms Gouari and her husband, Rey Steve Mabiala, said they were familiar with evacuations of all kinds – he had once fled fighting by hiding in a tropical forest – and how floods and droughts have been made worse by the changes climatic conditions were causing large displacements on the continent.
« At home in Africa, there are a lot of climate refugees, but I never thought I’d become one in Canada, » said Mr Mabiala, 42, who arrived in Canada in 2018, and was joined last month by Ms Gouari , 39, after becoming a permanent resident and sponsoring his admission to the country.
Three months into Canada’s wildfire season, flames have already burned more than 10 times the acres of land burned during this time last year. The size and intensity of the fires are thought to be related to drought and heat caused by climate change.
Forest fires are burning in all provinces and territories of Canada, with the exception of the province of Prince Edward Island and Nunavut, a northern territory that is above the tree line, where temperatures are too low to the survival of trees.
“My wife keeps telling me, ‘How could this happen? You always promised me Canada was a peaceful country but now we are starting to flee as if we were back home,” said Mr Mabiala, looking at his wife, who had a blank stare and could only mumble that he was “shocked.” .
The outbreak has affected not only traditionally wildfire-prone western provinces, but also eastern provinces, such as Quebec, where it is rare for so many fires to burn at once and whose residents have little experience evacuating from such fires.
Of the more than 400 fires currently raging in Canada, more than a third are in Quebec, which already has its worst fire season on record.
« It’s truly an exceptional year, » said Josée Poitras, a spokeswoman for Quebec’s forest fire prevention agency.
As even extremely cold regions of Canada are getting hotter, rising temperatures and a « vapour pressure deficit, » or lack of moisture in the air, are making trees drier, said Tanzina Mohsin, a professor of physical and environmental sciences at the University of Toronto.
“We are facing some unprecedented events, including droughts, accelerating fires and heat waves, and there will be more over time, especially bushfires,” Ms Mohsin said.
The fires in Quebec were started last week by a single bolt of lightning near Val-d’Or, a town about 200 miles southwest of Chibougamau, following an unusually dry spring, Ms. Poitras said, adding : « In one day, we had 200 alerts from people who reported seeing smoke and it caused more than a hundred fires, which gradually increased. »
In Chibougamau — a city of 7,500 people about 430 miles north of Montreal by road — city officials issued an evacuation order on Tuesday, just hours after saying a firewall would contain the encroaching fire. But with the fires only 15 miles away and picking up speed, residents jumped into vehicles and started heading south.
Many came to Roberval, a town about 150 miles southeast of Chibougamau. A trip that usually takes a couple of hours took two to three times as long as a caravan of cars and trailers moved slowly along 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 Côté, 71, who was with other displaced people at a sports center in Roberval. « It’s the first time I’ve had to evacuate because of a fire. »
It was the first time all of Chibougamau had to evacuate due to fires, although residents in some parts of the city had been forced out in 2005.
Inside the large sports center where the displaced took refuge, people sat and slept on beds, with individual suitcases next to them. Some had brought their pets with them.
Authorities had blocked all roads leading into Chibougamau and other fire-threatened areas, and it was unclear when residents would be allowed to return or what they would find once they did.
In a strange twist, as smoke from the wildfires wafted across the US East Coast, there was no odor or smoke visible in Roberval and other areas just south of Chibougamau Thursday.
A combination of factors, firefighters said, laid the groundwork for the fires to spread in the Chibougamau area: freezing rain that weighed down trees and covered the forest floor with broken branches that became tinder; and unusually dry ground because the snow melted earlier than usual and there was little rain in the spring.
Built on mining and logging, Chibougamau is one of the few bold names on maps of Quebec’s vast, sparsely populated northern regions. For many in Quebec, it is a mysterious place associated with remoteness and extreme cold.
But Chibougamau is also affected by the effects of global warming. Longtime residents said the evacuation followed years of change in their community.
Since retiring as a miner ten years ago, Mr Côté has run an outdoor ice rink in Chibougamau. Fewer months with sub-zero temperatures shortened the skating season, and erratic temperatures made it more difficult to maintain a clean, smooth ice surface.
« There was a thaw in January this year, » he said. « It melted, I had to start over and it took a week to re-ice. »
“We can really see that it is global warming that is affecting us the most,” Côté added. « Every year, the situation gets worse. »
When Guy Boisvert, 79, moved to Chibougamau as a child, a white fog blanketed much of the city in winter, while temperatures regularly dropped to minus 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Winters were long, and May brought many showers, making fires rare and manageable.
« Sometimes we would see a small fire, and it would last a day or two, » Boisvert said.
His wife, Shirley Gallon, 75, who has lived in Chibougamau for 53 years, added: « We never imagined we would have to evacuate from Chibougamau. »
More recently, rising temperatures have lengthened the golf season in Chibougamau, said Jonathan Mattson, 42, a city councilor and avid golfer.
A couple of years ago, the golf season started a full month early in mid-April. Normally, the golf course looks wet.
“But this year, when I walked the field, it was crunchy – very, very dry,” Mr. Mattson said.
But perhaps most surprised have been newcomers to Chibougamau, such as Mr Mabiala, from the Republic of Congo, who has come to work in logging.
Two Filipino women, Ruth Cabrera and Anna Huerte, said they were evacuated to their homes after floods and volcanic eruptions.
A familiar terror – of being at the mercy of natural forces beyond their control – returned as the fires approached Chibougamau, turning the sky red and yellow.
Ms Cabrera, 49, who works at a McDonald’s in Chibougamau, and Ms Huerte, 38, who works in the logging industry, said they did not realize how climate change could disrupt life in Canada.
The two women said their relatives in the Philippines were shocked to learn of their evacuation.
“They were asking, ‘Oh, is there such a thing in Canada?’ » Ms. Cabrera said.