As acrid smoke filled the air, turning the sky around her sleepy hometown of Fox Creek, Alberta, a garish red orange, Nicole Clarke said she felt a sense of dread.
With no time to gather family photographs, she grabbed her two small children, hopped into her pickup truck and drove away, praying not to drive in the menacing path of the fire.
« It looks like a Canadian Armageddon, like a bad horror movie, » said Ms Clarke, a 37-year-old hairdresser, standing outside her pickup truck, a large hamper of dirty laundry piled in the trunk.
In a country revered for its placid landscapes and predictability, weeks of out-of-control wildfires raging across western Canada have ushered in a powerful sense of fear, threatening a region that is the epicenter of the country’s oil and gas industry.
Climate research suggests that the heat and drought associated with global warming are the main reasons for the increase in bigger and stronger fires.
Amid the frequent wildfire updates that dominate national television news, the wildfires have also helped unite a vast and sometimes polarized nation, with volunteers, firefighters and army reservists from other provinces rushing to lend a hand.
About 29,000 people in Alberta were forced from their homes by the recent wildfire onslaught, though that number has been cut in half in recent days as the wildfires died down.
Ms Clarke said her family had been staying in cheap motels since being ordered about a week ago to evacuate their home. But she and her boyfriend were unemployed and money was running out fast.
« I don’t know if I’ll have a home to go back to, » she added Thursday, sobbing.
The fires produced smoke so thick that children in some cities stayed in their classrooms during recess rather than risk inhaling the smoke outside. Dozens of residents left in such a frantic panic that they left pets behind.
On Highway 43, a long stretch of the Alberta highway dotted with evacuated small towns, the thick layer of smoke that blankets the road on Thursday evoked the feeling of a dystopia.
With helicopters hovering overhead dropping water, police cars with flashing lights blocked parts of the highway as fires approached the road. Residents trying to return to homes they hoped were still intact were pityed as they were forced to turn back.
Fires have broken out across western Canada, including British Columbia, but hardest hit has been neighboring Alberta, a proud oil and gas-producing province sometimes referred to as « North Texas, » which has declared the state of emergency. More than 94 active fires blazed Friday afternoon, potentially disrupting summer plans in a rugged province where outdoor pursuits are a part of daily life.
British Columbia was the site in 2021 of one of Canada’s worst wildfires in decades, as fires decimated the small community of Lytton after temperatures reached a record 49.6 degrees Celsius, or 121.3 Fahrenheit .
Not since the worst Covid-19 pandemic hit the region has the area been so overwhelmed with apprehension, accompanied by the all-too-familiar need to wear masks outside. Only this time, residents say, a silent killer has been replaced by something more visceral and visible.
No deaths have been reported so far. But in Alberta, Frankie Payou33-year-old firefighter and father of three from the North East Prairie Métis Settlement Albertahe was in a coma with serious injuries after being hit on the head by a burnt tree. His house was also destroyed in a fire.
Most of the fires occurred in the far north of the province, home to many indigenous communities, dealing a major blow to people who depend on land and natural resources.
At a sprawling evacuation center in Edmonton, Ken Zenner, 61, a father of eight, two of whom are members of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation, said he and his family were evacuated from the town of Valleyview. He worried about how they would handle it.
Families who have been displaced for a total of seven days are eligible for financial support provided by the government, according to provincial regulations. But Mr Zenner said he was unfit because he had only been evacuated for six days.
“Indigenous communities have been underfunded for years and now we are seeing the consequences,” he said.
The rest of the country is mobilizing to help. About 2,500 firefighters are battling the fires, including 1,000 from other provinces. Joining them are firefighters from the United States.
The fires also engulfed Alberta’s largest city, Calgary, where residents this week said they sat down to breakfast only to see and smell the pungent smoke billowing through cracks under their front doors.
Environment and climate change Canada said the air quality index for the city on Wednesday afternoon was at 10+, or « very high risk. » Canadian health authorities have warned that smoking could cause symptoms ranging from sore and watery eyes to coughing, dizziness, chest pains and heart palpitations.
In Alberta, the fires brought back bad memories of 2016, when a raging fire destroyed 2,400 buildings in Fort McMurray, Alberta, the heart of Canada’s tar sands region with the third largest oil reserves in the world.
Alberta is Canada’s top energy-producing province and the largest source of imported oil from the United States, and wildfires have forced some companies to curb production.
As flames rage over wells and pipelines, major drillers like Chevron and Paramount Resources have together shut down the equivalent of at least 240,000 barrels of oil a day, according to energy consultancy Rystad Energy.
For now, the outages are affecting only a small fraction of the country’s total oil and gas production. However, they point out that oil and gas production, the main driver of climate change, is also vulnerable to the increasingly dire consequences of a warming planet.
Some say the fire could help galvanize Canadians about the dangers of climate change. « Smoke from wildfires takes a to-the-face impact that affects millions of Canadians that makes it harder to ignore, » the CBC, the national broadcaster, observed this week.
The human toll from the fires will reverberate for weeks to come. Christine Pettie, a corporate executive at a logging cooperative in Edson, a rural town about two hours west of Edmonton, said residents were still in shock after being evacuated.
She and her husband left in such a hurry that he forgot his insulin. They were lucky that their house remained standing.
However, Ms Pettie said, the experience « definitely shook me to my core. »
Vjosa Isai contributed to reporting from Toronto.