Wildland fire evacuations

Wildland fire evacuations are increasing across Canada.

Wildland fire evacuations due to wildland fire proximity, smoke or power outages are crucial for preventing injury and death. Annually, on average, 20 communities and 70,000 people are affected by wildland fire events and more than 8,500 people are actually evacuated. The number of evacuations and the number of evacuees increased between 1980 and 2014, and are expected to be higher as climate change leads to increased number, size and intensity of wildland fires.

Read how wildland fire evacuations and its indicators are defined

A wildland fire evacuation is defined as any situation in which people occupying a particular location leave that location as the result of wildland fire proximity, smoke or power outage.

Wildland fire evacuations in Canada involve multiple government agencies and supporting organizations like the Canadian Red Cross that can participate in efforts to meet the basic needs of those affected. Compilation of national data on evacuation is complex, because individual agencies have records applicable to a limited jurisdictional boundary or context, and the format of the information is variable.

Forest Change wildland fire evacuation indicators include:

  • number of evacuations
  • number of evacuees
  • location of evacuation

Indicators were estimated for the period 1980–2014 using key word searches of news articles and databases documenting wildland fire evacuations in Canada. These bibliometric data have limitations resulting from variability in level of reporting across agencies and to the difficulty of compiling this information (see: Wildfire evacuations in Canada 1980-2007. For instance, data accuracy is lower for Nunavut. Similarly, data from the 1980s are more difficult to compile than recent data, which are more readily available through electronic access to media publications.

Why wildland fire evacuations are important

Wildland fire evacuations prevent injury and death when fire threatens communities in the wildland-urban interface.

Every year, on average, 8,600 wildland fires occur in Canada’s forest. In the wildland-urban interface, where human infrastructure meets or is dispersed within wildland areas containing flammable vegetation, fire threatens human property and lives. Wildland fire evacuations due to wildland fire proximity, smoke or power outages are crucial for preventing injury and death. Annually, on average, 20 communities and 70,000 people are affected by wildland fire events and more than 8,500 people are actually evacuated. Alberta’s 2011 Lesser Slave Lake fire caused damages resulting in one of Canada’s largest-ever insurance claims.

Wildland fire evacuations and their associated costs are expected to rise with more frequent weather conditions conducive to fire and projected increases in the area burned and number of fires. Tracking wildland fire evacuations assists in determining whether forest-based communities are increasingly affected by wildland fire activity and in implementing adaptation measures in the wildland-urban interface.

What has changed

The annual number of evacuations and evacuees increased between 1980 and 2014.

Since 1990, wildland fires have burned an average of 2.3 million hectares of forest each year in Canada. However, interannual variability in wildland fire activity is high. Available records indicate that the number of evacuations (Figure 1) and the number of evacuees (Figure 2) have increased during the period 1980–2014.

British Columbia had the highest number of evacuations (Figure 3) and evacuees of all provinces and territories for the time period considered, because of settlement patterns. A higher percentage of wildland fires is expected to affect communities in British Columbia, where the wildland-urban interface is more extensive than in other provinces and territories. In other areas of Canada, the prevalence of wildland fires combined with low population densities resulted in relatively few evacuation events over time.

The number of home losses has remained relatively stable for the last 35 years, but peaked in two instances because of the Kelowna (2003) and Lesser Slave Lake (2011) fires.

Graph showing the annual number of wildland fire evacuations in Canada for the period 1980–2014.

Figure 1 – Annual number of wildland fire evacuations in Canada for the period 1980–2014

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Graph showing the annual number of people evacuated as a result of wildland fires in Canada for the period 1980–2014.

Figure 2 – Annual number of evacuees (in thousands) as a result of wildland fires in Canada for the period 1980–2014

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Graph showing the number of wildland fire evacuations per Canadian province and territory for the period 1980–2014.

Figure 3 – Annual number of wildland fire evacuations by Canadian province and territory for the period 1980–2014

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Graph data - Figure 1
Table listing the annual number of wildland fire evacuations in Canada for the years 1980 to 2014.
Year Number of evacuations
1980 26
1981 8
1982 2
1983 8
1984 1
1985 9
1986 12
1987 6
1988 8
1989 50
1990 12
1991 12
1992 4
1993 3
1994 13
1995 44
1996 7
1997 17
1998 49
1999 33
2000 15
2001 32
2002 49
2003 53
2004 16
2005 22
2006 37
2007 17
2008 28
2009 82
2010 69
2011 43
2012 54
2013 34
2014 25
 
Graph data - Figure 2
Table listing the number of people evacuated (in thousands) as a result of wildland fires in Canada for the years 1980 to 2014.
Year Number of evacuees (x 1,000)
1980 10.92
1981 2.95
1982 0.11
1983 2.37
1984 0.04
1985 2.21
1986 5.16
1987 1.15
1988 2.52
1989 27.00
1990 3.31
1991 5.32
1992 1.23
1993 1.30
1994 6.06
1995 13.70
1996 1.67
1997 3.01
1998 15.75
1999 7.18
2000 2.06
2001 5.30
2002 9.96
2003 51.35
2004 0.65
2005 6.39
2006 16.65
2007 3.87
2008 10.03
2009 23.71
2010 7.73
2011 26.36
2012 9.26
2013 5.48
2014 10.92
 
Graph data - Figure 3
Table listing the number of wildland fire evacuations per Canadian province and territory for the period 1980–2014.
Province/ territory Number of evacuations
Alta. 133
B.C. 253
Man. 116
N.B. 16
N.L. 19
N.S. 29
Nun. 0
N.W.T. 11
Ont. 165
P.E.I. 1
Que. 60
Sask. 80
Y.T. 17

The outlook

Wildland fire evacuations and evacuee numbers are expected to increase.

With climate change, unseasonable and extreme weather are expected to become more frequent, including lightning strikes that cause fire, and the number  and intensity of wildland fires, and the area burned, are expected to increase. Evacuation events are likely to continue to increase.

Sources and references for wildland fire evacuations and its indicators
  • Beverly, J., and Bothwell, P. 2011. Wildfire evacuations in Canada 1980–2007. Natural Hazards 59, 571–596.
  • Harris, L.M., McGee, T.K., and McFarlane, B.L. 2011. Implementation of wildfire risk management by local governments in Alberta, Canada. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 54, 457–475.
  • Hofstetter, C.R., and Dozier, D.M. 1986. Useful news, sensational news: Quality, sensationalism and local TV news. Journalism Quarterly 63, 815–820, 853.
  • Price, D.T., Alfaro, R., et al. 2013. Anticipating the consequences of climate change for Canada’s boreal forest ecosystems. Environmental Reviews 21, 322–365.
  • Stocks, B.J., and Flannigan, M.D. 2013. Current fire regimes, impacts and likely changes: Past, current and future boreal fire activity in Canada. In Goldammer, J.G. (ed.), Vegetation fires and global change: Challenges for concerted international action, 39–50. Remagen, Germany: Kessel.
  • Taylor, S.W., Stennes, B., et al. 2006. Integrating Canadian wildland fire management policy and institutions: Sustaining natural resources, communities and ecosystems. In Hirsch, K.G., and Fuglem, P. (technical coordinators), Canadian Wildland Fire Strategy: Background syntheses, analyses, and perspectives, 3–26 Edmonton, AB: Canadian Council of Forest Ministers.

Canadian Forest Service key contacts

Erin Naydenov, Forestry Officer, Northern Forestry Centre
Amy Christianson, Fire Social Scientist, Northern Forestry Centre
Scott Wilson, Social Science Research Assistant, Northern Forestry Centre

Adaptation tools and resources

Fire Smart Canada – helps people understand the potential of wildland fire affecting homes and communities; includes a risk reduction program for forestry companies

Forest Change Toolkit – a list of tools and resources for climate change adaptation

Find out more
Related Canadian Forest Service research