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):

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:


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.

Can new President & CEO Tim Reid help Northlands find its way?

Northlands announced today that Tim Reid will step into the role of President and CEO effective September 15, 2014. He takes over from CFO and VP of Corporate Services Sharilee Fossum, who stepped into the role in January when Richard Andersen resigned. Tim is coming off a successful stint in Fort McMurray and inherits an organization facing great uncertainty about its future.

Tim Reid

It was just over a year ago that Tim became CEO of the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo (RRC), the organization responsible designing, building, stewarding, and operating “several state-of-the-art community recreation, sport and event facilities and venues” in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo. Prior to that, he was COO of MacDonald Island Park Corporation, precursor to the RRC. Tim will ease into his new role, remaining with the RRC in a supporting capacity for the next six months. The RRC had five projects in the design or construction phase as of January 2014, with a total budget of more than $360 million, including the $127 million Shell Place, slated to open in January 2015.

Tim takes over at a difficult time for Northlands. The organization seems as uncertain as ever about its future, especially in the face of major changes to its core businesses. Will it be an organization focused on agriculture, one focused on meetings & conventions, or one focused on sports & entertainment? Will it find the courage to narrow its focus, or will Northlands continue to straddle three very different industries?

These questions are all the more pertinent now that momentum is firmly behind Rogers Place, the new downtown arena. Despite repeated statements from Northlands officials over the years suggesting they’ll continue operating Rexall Place as-is, the fact is that losing the Edmonton Oilers will have a significant effect on the financial health of the organization. And no one knows if Edmonton can support two large concert venues.

There’s no question that Tim has had a positive impact on Fort McMurray, but can he find similar success here in Edmonton? Granted he doesn’t start for another month, but Tim’s first interviews with the media don’t provide much confidence.

Tim told Metro today that he understands the need to figure out a future for Rexall Place. “We’re trying to put together the data as we speak, so we know exactly what happens when the Oilers and their properties move to another arena,” he said. However, he went on to say that Northlands needs to “find out what opportunities there are for growth on the agriculture side, on the convention and hosting side.”

The downtown arena wasn’t decided yesterday of course – things have been in motion for quite some time now. Are we really to believe that Northlands is only now running the numbers on Rexall Place without the Oilers? I fully appreciate that Tim hasn’t even started yet, so he probably hasn’t seen all the data. He should have just said so. He told reporters that Northlands need to work with the City, Oilers, and Katz Group, but gave no details.

Edmonton Rexall Place

His second comment about finding other opportunities is potentially more concerning, especially coupled with his stated vision for Northlands:

“We want to be the heart of Edmonton and the place where the community goes to celebrate together.”

As a vision it is certainly concise and inspirational, but it’s also vague and generic. It doesn’t say anything about what Northlands is or does. The organization’s 2013 Annual Report lists agriculture, entertainment, trade shows, concerts, horse racing, casino, and conferences as the businesses that Northlands operates in. Its “looking forward” statement is just as confusing:

“As Northlands moves into 2014, we will continue to provide Edmonton and the Capital Region with the best in events and entertainment. We will capitalize on our role as an urban agricultural society by partnering with like-minded organizations to enhance our already robust local food market. As Edmonton’s destination of choice for entertainment, we will continue to bring some of the world’s best performers to our arena. We will build our visitor base for all of our venues by showcasing Northlands as the destination for entertainment, events and the community.”

Founded as an agricultural society 135 years ago, Northlands has never been willing to fully commit to entertainment, even after bringing in Richard Anderson from San Diego where he was GM of PETCO Park and Executive Vice President of the San Diego Padres. Over the years, members of the board have differed greatly on how much importance Northlands should give to its agricultural initiatives. The organization’s roots might be in agriculture, but it’s sporting that defines Northlands today, at least financially.

Without the $21 million that Northlands received in grant revenue in 2013, it would have run a $19.7 million deficit. Its four main businesses – Northlands Park, Rexall Place, Agriculture and Signature Events, and EXPO Centre – accounted for $136 million in revenue. Of that, Northlands Park (horse racing and casino) accounted for 43% and Rexall Place accounted for 28%.

With declining horse racing revenues and the likely loss of business due to competition with Rogers Place, it’s clear that Northlands needs to make a move. But talk of reinvention is easier said than done. With 19 members on its volunteer board of directors and an 18-person board of governors, Northlands currently has a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Tim certainly has his work cut out for him!

I think it’s great that Northlands was able to find someone relatively close to home to be its new leader. Tim has been in Alberta for years and is already familiar with the political climate here. For all its faults, Northlands remains extremely connected to the community. Last year alone, more than 1,100 volunteers donated more than 21,000 hours of their time and Northlands supported more than 80 charitable organizations, investing “more than $1.25 million in cash and value into the community.” I hope he does find success at Northlands and is able to have a positive impact on our city.

Tim, welcome to Edmonton, good luck, and in true Make Something Edmonton fashion, how can I help?

UPDATE: Here’s a post from McMurray Musings’ Theresa Wells on Tim and his leadership abilities.