The last 25 years of wildfires in Alberta

Like all of you I have been watching the images and stories coming in from Fort McMurray and elsewhere in the province with horror and fascination. Horror because of the incredible devastation caused by the wildfires and fascination because of the incredible response of Edmontonians and Albertans to help all those affected.

The wildfire that is wreaking havoc in Fort McMurray grew very rapidly and is approaching 200,000 hectares in size. It has been nicknamed The Beast by officials. Wildfires are not a rare thing in Alberta of course, we have our fair share every year. I found myself wondering how this year compared to previous years and how this fire compared in size. I was pleasantly surprised to find all of the data readily accessible in the federal and provincial open data catalogues.

Here’s a look at the number of fires and the number of hectares burned in Alberta from 1990 through most of 2015:

alberta wildfire stats

A large number of fires doesn’t always mean more area burned – some fires are just more destructive than others, weather conditions play a role, etc. The worst year in the last 25 years in terms of area burned was 2011 when more than 806,000 hectares burned. One fire that year, the Richardson Fire, was nearly 600,000 hectares in size, the second largest in Alberta history (after the 1950 Chinchaga fire).

The average size of a wildfire in Alberta from 1990 to 2014 was about 120 hectares. There have been a few years with fires over 100,000 hectares in size, but the largest is about 70,000 hectares on average. Here’s the largest fire size by year (for 1990-2014):

YEAR SIZE (HECTARES)
1990 11,810
1991 1,559
1992 475
1993 7,820
1994 13,138
1995 132,679
1996 452
1997 2,800
1998 163,138
1999 10,349
2000 2,147
2001 104,534
2002 238,867
2003 29,936
2004 107,829
2005 43,000
2006 18,204
2007 63,000
2008 11,600
2009 11,506
2010 33,075
2011 577,647
2012 134,603
2013 8,819
2014 4,173

Another thing I was curious about was the cause of these wildfires. The data shows that for the 25,000+ wildfires that burned during the 1996-2014 period, lightning causes about 43% of them and residential or recreational activities cause about 38%.

alberta wildfire causes

This year isn’t the first time Fort McMurray has been significantly affected by wildfires, though there’s no question the damage this year is unmatched. A large fire in 2002 caused a number of evacuations of communities near Fort McMurray and threatened Highway 63 before it was eventually contained. The highway was shut down in 1995 when a large fire caused more than 500 people to flee their homes.

Alberta Wildfire Data

If you’d like to dig into the data yourself, here are the relevant datasets:

Updates

For the latest updates on the current wildfire situation, here are the official links:

Also note that a province-wide fire ban is in place. If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so at the Red Cross online.

  • This is very interesting, thanks for the data.