Emergency & disaster management
Canada On Fire
The numbers behind the worst wildfire season on record
November 3, 2023
By Elena De Luigi
This summer, wildfires raged from coast to coast to coast. Thousands of people were evacuated, unsure of whether or not their homes would still be standing when they returned. Neighbourhoods were destroyed. The Canadian Armed Forces were deployed to assist and global help was brought in. Canada experienced its worst wildfire season on record in 2023. And a tragic one for firefighter deaths.
- Devyn Gale, 19, from Revelstoke, B.C., was killed on July 13 by a falling tree while she was clearing brush with her team near a wildfire in a remote area outside her hometown.
- Acho Dene Koe band member Adam Yeadon, 25, from Fort Liard, N.W.T., died following an injury while battling a blaze near his community on July 15.
- Ryan Gould, 41, from Whitecourt, Alta., died on July 19 when his helicopter crashed while he was fighting a forest fire in northern Alberta.
- Zachery Freeman Muise, 25, from Waterford, Ont., died on July 28 while helping to contain the Donnie Creek wildfire in B.C.
- Four subcontractors with B.C. Wildfire were all killed in a head-on collision with a tractor-trailer on Sept. 20 in B.C. while they were travelling to the Kamloops base after a 14-day wildfire deployment in the Vanderhoof area.
Over the last 25 years, the Canadian government reported that about 7,300 forest fires have occurred each year. There have been more than 6,400 fires in 2023, as of Oct. 3.
Since 1990, wildfires across Canada have consumed an average of 2.5 million hectares per year. Until this summer, when more than 18.5 million hectares burned in 10 provinces and two territories, as of Oct. 6. The country spent many weeks sitting at a Level 5 preparedness level, which means all hands on deck, with little room for shared resources.
In terms of fire suppression, costs over the last decade in Canada have ranged from about $800 million to $1.5 billion per year. In 2022, the federal government launched the Fighting and Managing Wildfires in a Changing Climate program – Equipment Fund, which is expected to provide $256 million over five years, starting in the 2022 to 2023 season, to support the provinces and territories in procuring specialized wildland fire fighting equipment. The Training Fund provides $28 million over five years to train 1,000 new community-based firefighters, to reduce the risk from wildfire and support community-based capacity. Throughout the season, the federal government acquired more than 5,000 fire fighting personnel from the United States, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, France, South Africa, Costa Rica, Australia, New Zealand and Chile to bolster crews fighting wildfires in multiple provinces. level.
In September, Canada gave $65 million to six provinces and territories to buy specialized wildland fire fighting equipment such as fire crew trucks and PPE. Single and multi-year agreements were made with Alberta, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Northwest Territories and Yukon through the program’s Equipment Fund.
British Columbia and the Northwest Territories are expected to receive the maximum available funding, with B.C. receiving $32 million while the N.W.T. would see more than $28.5 million. Both would get the funding over five years.
The agreements with the six provinces and territories build on the first phase of the Wildland Firefighter Training Fund, which put nearly $38 million towards hiring, training and retaining 630 firefighters and 125 Indigenous fire guardians in June.
Additionally, the federal government announced a long-term investment in the WildFireSat mission, set to launch in 2029, but it did not provide details on the amount. Officials also committed to improving resilience strategies and preparedness efforts to reduce disaster risks.
By province and territory
In New Brunswick, 856 hectares burned this summer. The largest fire was the Stein Lake fire, which was 504 hectares and burned down one home. The province said it spent approximately $3 million to deploy firefighters to other provinces and territories.
At press time, Nova Scotia had 215 wildfires, burning a total of 24,819 hectares. Sixty homes were destroyed in the Barrington Lake fire, which burned 23,379 hectares. It was the largest fire of the year and in the province’s recorded history. The Tantallon fire, which was burning at the same time as Barrington Lake, burned down 151 homes and consumed 969 hectares.
The Department of Natural Resources and Renewables spent about $7.6 million fighting wildfires this year, as of Sept 21. It does not yet have a final cost for deploying and acquiring firefighters as needed because some invoices are still outstanding, however the province has about 300 wildland firefighters at its disposal. Prince Edward Island had eight small wildfires which burned a total of 7.9 hectares. There was no major damage, no structures lost and no injuries or deaths.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, 21,883.3 hectares had burned as of Sept 22. The largest fires in the province occurred in Labrador, with Julienne Lake burning 10,560 hectares, Northern Labrador burning 4,852 hectares, and Ashuanipi Lake burning 2,300 hectares. Only one shed was lost. The province said the total costs associated with forest fire suppression activities would be determined at the end of the fire season, however it has 44 permanent staff and 17 auxiliary wildland firefighters.
In Ontario, there were 716 confirmed wildland fires as of Sept. 21, which burned 421,565 hectares across the province. At this same date last year, there had been 255 fires that had affected 2,522 hectares. The 10-year average shows 675 fires having affected 163,609 hectares of land in Ontario. The province said 10 structures – outbuildings in remote areas – were lost as a result of wildland fire activity. The government also increased its base funding for emergency fire fighting this year by an additional $35 million for a total of nearly $135 million.
In terms of personnel, Ontario has deployed 576 firefighters so far to Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Minnesota. To help fight its own fires, the province received fire fighting assistance from the United States, Mexico, and the Canadian Forest Service. It also accepted inbound fire fighting aircraft from the Northwest Territories and Minnesota. In 2023, Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry hired approximately 661 new and returning fire rangers. The province has 142 fire-ranger crews consisting of four to six staff per crew.
Sioux Lookout 33, on the western edge of Wabakimi Provincial Park, was the largest fire in the province, and was still burning at 62,378 hectares as of Sept. 21. Other fires of note include Cochrane 7, located northeast of Abitibi Lake, which burned 37,742 hectares, and created a significant amount of smoke that travelled south to the Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa and parts of Quebec. Cochrane 11, located approximately five kilometres west of Fort Albany, burned 805 hectares.
In Manitoba, 198,633 hectares had burned as of Oct. 1. The province’s total budget allocated for wildfire suppression in 2023 was nearly $51.3 million for the 2023 season. Manitoba has 58 full-time and 339 seasonal wildfire suppression personnel. It operates seven air tankers, nine helicopters on long-term contracts and others on short-term, as needed.
In Saskatchewan, approximately 742,000 hectares have burned as of Sept. 20. The provincial government provided $91.77 million to the Saskatchewan Public Safety Agency (SPSA) in 2023. The agency currently has more than 100 fire fighting ground personnel. Two of the largest wildfires in the province this year were the Shaw and Vermette fires. The fires were approximately 191,000 hectares and 88,000 hectares, respectively.
In Alberta, 1,022 wildfires have burned more than two million hectares within Alberta’s Forest Protection Area so far this season. The government said in an email that it does not yet know how much it has spent on suppression this season. The province currently has 1,578 personnel from Alberta Wildfire on the ground fighting wildfires in various capacities, including specialist support staff.
The province spent $175 million on a recovery program for municipalities and Metis settlements affected by wildfires, however it does not know how much it spent on wildfire suppression so far this season.
The five largest wildfires in Alberta as of Sept. 23 include the EWF-031 fire, which was part of the Pembina Wildfire Complex, and burned 201,931 hectares, the Long Lake fire which burned 188,333 hectares, the SWF-068 fire, which was part of the Kimiwan Complex, burned 143,039 hectares, the Fort Fitzgerald fire which burned 130,805 hectares, and the Basset Fire, which burned 234,164 hectares as of Oct. 3.
In British Columbia, approximately 2.46 million hectares have burned as of Sept. 19, with approximately 1,300 firefighters engaged in fire response. B.C.’s fire management budget for the 2023 wildfire season was more than $204 million. Since April 1, the BC Wildfire Service has spent an estimated $742 million on suppression efforts.
Initial estimates provided by the Insurance Bureau of Canada say this summer’s wildfires in the Okanagan and Shuswap regions resulted in more than $720 million in insured losses. These wildfires are now the most expensive insured event ever recorded in British Columbia, and the tenth costliest in Canada’s history.
The Bush Creek East wildfire caused more than $240 million in insured damage while the McDougall Creek, Clark Creek and Walroy Lake wildfires caused more than $480 million. Combined, insured losses from the Bush Creek East and McDougall Creek wildfires this year exceed the cost of the last major wildfire in Okanagan Mountain Park near Kelowna in 2003. That fire 20 years ago resulted in $200 million in insured damage.
More than 270 structures are confirmed to have been destroyed. In addition, the Bush Creek East wildfire caused extensive damage to public infrastructure, including damage to hydro poles that resulted in power outages for thousands of people.
In West Kelowna, officials confirmed that 70 homes were affected by the wildfires, and 20 were lost in Westbank First Nation. In Kelowna, three homes and two outbuildings were completely destroyed, with a further three being destroyed in Lake Country. In the areas of Traders Cove and Lake Okanagan Resort, an estimated 100 structures were completely destroyed. The Lake Okanagan Resort was also destroyed.
Since wildfire response and recovery efforts, including assessing damages, are still underway, B.C. does not have a count of structures lost or an estimate on the cost to repair and rebuild. However, Fire Fighting in Canada previously reported that nearly two hundred homes were lost in the West Kelowna fire.
One of the largest and most damaging fires in B.C. was the McDougall Creek fire adjacent to West Kelowna. The fire burned an estimated 13,970.4 hectares as of Oct. 3, and displaced thousands of residents for weeks. Other fires of note as of Oct. 3 include the Great Beaver Lake fire which burned 48,396.3 hectares, the Lucas Lake fire which burned 34,853.6 hectares, and the Tatuk Lake fire which burned 44,641.7 hectares. The Knox Mountain fire burned 6.3 hectares, just two kilometres northwest of Kelowna. The Donnie Creek fire was still burning out of control as of Oct. 4 at 619,072.5 hectares, the largest in B.C. history.
B.C. requested firefighters from other provinces and international firefighters which were currently on the ground or incoming. The government does not yet know how much these fire fighting resources will cost. However, 20 communities in B.C.’s Columbia Basin received $2.5 million from the province and the Columbia Basin Trust to prepare for and reduce the chances of wildfire.
In the Yukon, wildfires have burned 223,942 hectares, as of Sept. 25. One non-inhabited structure (a decommissioned shed) was lost in the wilderness. The territory spent $42.1 million on fire fighting resources, which includes the $3.3 million it spent on prevention and mitigation activities such as FireSmart.
Each season, the Yukon has 75 initial-attack firefighters in regional bases across the territory and another 40 staff managing crews, aircraft and providing logistical support. There is also a sustained-action, 20-person unit crew via Yukon First Nations Wildfire. The largest fires were the Illusion Creek fire which burned 25,000 hectares, and the MacMillan River fire which burned 23,115 hectares. A combined $1.55 million from the federal and territorial governments was spent to reduce wildfire risk through First Nations-led FireSmart projects.
In the Northwest Territories, 4,163,423 hectares have burned as of Oct. 4. Thousands of people were evacuated from Yellowknife, Hay River and Fort Smith as wildfires raged close by. The Hay River fire was burning 521,681 hectares, the Fort Smith fire joined the Taltson complex which sat at 550,957 hectares, and the Yellowknife fire burned about 167,000 hectares.
In Quebec, five million hectares have burned as of Sept. 20. The province said it has cost an estimated $200 million to suppress the wildfires.
Nunavut does not have any trees; therefore, it does not experience wildfires.
As the season comes to a close, the fire service reflects on the growing threat of wildfires and climate change in Canada and where we go from here.
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