Alberta wildfires show Canadians need to prepare for longer climate disruptions

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Canadians must be prepared to be self-sufficient for more than three days as weather events become more severe due to climate change, experts say.

As wildfires rage in Alberta, thousands remain displaced from their homes following evacuation orders. It’s unclear when they will be able to return home.

When it comes to disaster preparation, historically the messaging has been to prepare an emergency kit with supplies to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours. But with severe weather events becoming more common, that thinking has to change, said Craig Stewart, vice president of climate change and federal issues with the Insurance Bureau of Canada.

“Whether it’s wildfires, floods, hail, or tornadoes, some part of the country is hit by something new and stronger than ever before,” he said.

“We need to change our thinking. We need to start thinking in terms of building self-sufficiency at the community level for events that could disrupt power, disrupt water supplies for weeks at a time.”

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Severe weather events disrupting lives for longer

Not only are severe weather events driving up the price tag for Canadians, but they are disrupting their lives for longer.

Hurricane Fiona, which cost at least $800 million in insured damage last year in Atlantic Canada, left thousands without power for weeks; a series of tornadoes upended the lives of hundreds of residents in the National Capital Region in September 2018; roughly five per cent of the population of Merritt, B.C., remains displaced following catastrophic floods in November 2021.

Click to play video: 'Alberta wildfires have scorched 2x as much land than a normal year — and it’s only May 10'
Alberta wildfires have scorched 2x as much land than a normal year — and it’s only May 10

“It does seem that now we’re getting two-to-three catastrophic events per year, whereas before we were expecting two-to-three a decade,” Stewart said.

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“If their home is undamaged, they should be prepared to be out of the home for up to a month because … all the services that support their community, it may take time for those to be restored. If their home is damaged or severely damaged in the case of an event, their expectation now should be that they will be out of their home for a year or more.”

Before disaster strikes, the Government of Canada’s current messaging is that in the event of an emergency, Canadians should be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours by having basic supplies ready in an easy-to-reach, accessible place.

Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, agrees with Stewart in that Canadians should be prepared for their lives to be disrupted for longer than three days.

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Huge demand stretches Alberta wildfire firefighting, emergency resources thin

“What people should be doing effectively is producing checklists – things to prepare for when leaving the home beyond 72 hours,” he said.

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What should you be packing in your emergency kit?

On its website, the government said a basic emergency kit should include essentials like water, non-perishable food, a crank or battery-powered flashlight and radio, a first aid kit, extra keys to your car and house and contact information.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Red Cross also said kits should include personal identification items such as your driver’s licence and passport, and other important documents such as birth and marriage certificates and wills.

Click to play video: 'Emergency Preparedness Week: Building a Kit'
Emergency Preparedness Week: Building a Kit

Feltmate said Canadians should also pack materials they will need beyond 72 hours, including insurance information, extra medication, cash in case debit and credit machines are shut down, supplies for their pets and of course, extra chargers for their phone and other essential electronics.

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“It’s just pure preparedness,” he said.

Stewart said before Canadians leave their homes, they should be taking pictures of all their contents and uploading them to a cloud server — not on a local computer — so that they can access them outside of their homes.

“Document the state of your home so that afterwards you can show what state it was in and be able to demonstrate that to government officials or to insurers,” he said.

Canada needs to build a ‘culture of preparedness’

The Alberta wildfires, which happen to be blazing during Emergency Preparedness Week (May 8-12), might be a preview of what’s in store during a potentially record-setting year for heat.

The world could hit a new average temperature record in 2023 or 2024, fuelled by climate change and the anticipated return of the El Nino weather phenomenon, climate scientists have said. During El Nino, winds blowing west along the equator slow down, and warm water is pushed east, creating warmer surface ocean temperatures.

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During the last three years, the La Nina weather pattern was observed in the Pacific Ocean, which generally lowers global temperatures slightly.

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How Fiona forced a reckoning with climate change in Canada

The world’s hottest year on record so far was 2016, coinciding with a strong El Nino; the last eight years were the world’s eight hottest on record, reflecting the longer-term warming trend driven by greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change is here to stay. We’re not going backwards on climate change,” Feltmate said.

“The only thing we can do is slow it down; we can’t stop it, so we need to prepare rapidly for extreme weather events, far more so than we have done to date.”

Stewart agrees.

“Whether you’re an individual, whether you’re a city councillor, whether you’re a provincial member of parliament or a federal member of parliament, we need to start thinking collectively about how to build that culture of preparedness,” he said.

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“We’re not prioritizing it the way that we should, and that’s going to have to shift.”

— with files from Reuters

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