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Fires, floods lead Canada’s 2011 top weather events list

Dec. 23, 2011, Toronto – Fires and floods of almost biblical proportions that forced thousands from their homes and cut a swath of destruction through several communities took a heavy toll on Canadians this year, says one of the country's lead climatologists.

December 23, 2011 
By The Canadian Press

Dec. 23, 2011, Toronto – Fires and floods of almost biblical proportions that forced thousands from their homes and cut a swath of destruction through several communities took a heavy toll on Canadians this year, says one of the country's lead climatologists.

Devastating floods in the Prairies and Quebec along with wildfires that razed about a third of the northern Alberta town of Slave Lake took the first three spots on David Phillips' list of the top 10 weather stories of 2011.

While those disasters weren't as deadly as the Japanese tsunami or the violent weather that battered the U.S., they wore down Canadians and cost the country billions, he said.

"We were getting our own fair share of misery, hardship and misfortune from the weather," said the senior climatologist with Environment Canada, who released his annual roundup Thursday.


"There have been tough years but I think this one, in many ways, has been difficult from an expensive point of view and the extreme aspect of it,'' he added.

The floods that swamped parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba were "unprecedented on so many fronts," placing them in the top spot, Phillips said.

Epic spring melts washed over land already sodden from October rain and snow, drowning each province under the highest water levels and flows in modern history.

Spring and summer flooding affected cities, towns, rural municipalities and First Nations along the Assiniboine, Souris, Red, Fisher, Saskatchewan and Icelandic rivers, as well as Lake Manitoba, Dauphin Lake and other large bodies of water.

Floodwaters overwhelmed reservoirs, shut down roads, contaminated homes and water supplies and ruined vast stretches of farmland.

"I don't think anybody realized the amount of water that was coming at us," Brian Spurrill, who lives in the southwestern Manitoba community of Melita, said at the time.

Governments at all levels spent about $1 billion fighting the floods and helping those affected, including thousands who were displaced.

Hundreds still haven't returned home and nearly a dozen communities remain under a state of emergency.

Brittle, dry land was Alberta's downfall, setting the stage for a massive firestorm that reduced roughly a third of Slave Lake to ashes and rubble.

Coming in at No. 2 on the list, the Slave Lake forest fire that began over the weekend of May 14 left some 2,000 residents homeless.

A helicopter pilot involved in the firefighting efforts died when his aircraft crashed into Lesser Slave Lake.

The flames, which investigators believe were deliberately set, destroyed some 400 homes and businesses – the province's worst property toll.

Among the buildings lost were government offices, the library, two churches and a radio station.

Damage was estimated at $700 million, which insurance adjusters estimate makes it the second-costliest disaster in the country next to the Quebec and Ontario ice storm of 1998.

The spring was also a struggle for some 2,000 Quebec residents along the Richelieu River, who grappled with the province's longest natural disaster.

Swollen by melting snow and intense rain, Lake Champlain – which feeds into the river – saw its water levels surge to record highs for 37 consecutive days.

The overflow rushed down the river, washing over communities and farms. Floodwaters submerged streets up to a kilometre from the river's banks in at least 20 municipalities.

Hundreds of roads and bridges suffered further damage in the last week of May when rain and strong winds raised the river to an all-time high of 30.7 metres.

Thousands of volunteers flocked to the region to help with the cleanup, but more than seven months later, dozens of residents still lived in hotels while they worked to restore their homes.

Taking fourth spot on the list was the challenging growing season for Canadian farmers, who saw everything from excessive wet conditions to bouts of dry, hot weather. The varied conditions led to a multitude of outcomes for growers, depending on their location and crop.

A tornado that tore through the southern Ontario town of Goderich in late August, crumbling the community's historic downtown and killing a salt mine worker, was No. 5 on the list.

The No. 6 spot went to an abnormally active hurricane season that saw 19 tropical storms develop in the Atlantic basin instead of the average 11. Only seven turned into full-blown hurricanes, however.

The mixed bag of weather this summer – extreme heat in Central Canada and cool, wet conditions on the East and West coasts –was No. 7.

Ice levels on the Arctic Ocean dropping to near-record lows took the eighth spot on the list, followed by the Groundhog Day winter storm at No. 9.

Violent winds that pummelled southern Alberta during the last two weeks of November, ripping cars off a highway and peeling the roof off a high school gym was a last-minute addition to the list at No. 10.

Environment Canada compiles its top 10 list based on factors such as the impact of the events, the size of the area affected and the economic effects.

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