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.
- Why wildland fire evacuations are important
- What has changed
- The outlook
- Adaptation tools and resources
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, mostly 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 data - Figure 1
|Year||Number of evacuations|
Graph data - Figure 2
|Year||Number of evacuees (x 1,000)|
Graph data - Figure 3
|Province/ territory||Number of evacuations|
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, the number and intensity of wildland fires, and the area burned are expected to increase. Evacuation events are likely to continue to increase.
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.
The 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 the 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.
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
Amy Christianson, Fire Social Scientist, 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
- Beverly, J.L., Flannigan, M.D., et al. 2011. The association between Northern Hemisphere climate patterns and interannual variability in Canadian wildfire activity. Canadian Journal of Forest Research 41, 2193-2201.
- Faulkner, H., McFarlane, B.L., et al. 2009. Comparison of homeowner response to wildfire risk among towns with and without wildfire management. Environmental Hazards 8: 38-51.
- McFarlane, B.L., McGee, T.K., et al. 2011. Complexity of homeowner wildfire risk mitigation: An integration of hazard theories. International Journal of Wildland Fire 20(8):921-931.
- McGee, T.K., McFarlane, B.L., et al. 2009. An examination of the influence of hazard experience on wildfire risk perceptions and adoption of mitigation measures. Society and Natural Resources 22, 308–323.