Wildfires in Canada

Okanagan Mountain Park Fire (Kelowna, BC - September 2003)
Flat Top Fire (Slave Lake, AB - May 2011)
Horse River Wildfire (Fort McMurray, AB - May, 2016)

August 2016    |    By Greg Thierman, CIP, CFE

Abstract: Wildfires are a menacing reality in Canada’s massive forest ecosystem and a threat to cause more damage for vulnerable communities built “close to nature.” Each summer, wildfires rage through forests, burning an average of 1.9 million hectares per year, according to Natural Resources Canada.

The images from the Fort McMurray wildfires are still fresh in our minds, with videos and photos of vehicles evacuating the city while trees beside the highway candled and flared into flames. The fire displaced about 90,000 people in the region and destroyed about 2,400 homes and other buildings.

The Insurance Bureau of Canada reported in July 2016 that the damage caused by the Fort McMurray wildfires reached an estimate of $3.58 billion, making it the largest insured catastrophe in Canadian history. The Fort McMurray wildfires is the costliest insured disaster in Canadian history, eclipsing the floods in Sourthern Alberta in 2013 and the Quebec ice storms of 1998. The scenes from Fort McMurray brought home the increasing risk of wildfires as communities expand into the forested interface areas around many Canadian communities. 

Canada has about 10% of the world’s forests. Each year over the last decade, about 7,400 forest fires have occurred. Only 3% of all wildland fires that start each year in Canada grow to more than 200 hectares in area. However, these fires account for 97% of the total area burned across the country.

Fire suppression costs over the last decade in Canada have ranged from about $500 million to $1 billion a year. Catastrophe Indices and Quantification says the Fort McMurray fires resulted in more than 27,000 personal property claims, with each one averaging $81,000. And that doesn’t take into account the insured losses after these destructive infernos.

Prior to the Fort McMurray wildfires of 2016, on May 15, 2011, residents of Slave Lake, Alberta, came face to face with the devastating impact of a huge wildfire event. At the time, the fire that engulfed the community of 6,700 was the second costliest insured disaster in Canadian history, with losses to date of more than $700 million, according to Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). Thousands of claims were filed for damage to homes, cars and businesses as a result of the fire, now known in insurance circles as CAT 47. More than 700 homes were completely destroyed, as were dozens of businesses and municipal buildings.

The wildfires burned 22,000 hectares in the Lesser Slave Lake area and destroyed more than 500 structures in the town and nearby communities. Alberta’s 2011 wildfire season saw 1,139 such blazes recorded and 792,173 hectares of forest burned.

After Slave Lake, the most damaging blaze to have occurred in Canada was the 2003 Okanagan Mountain Park wildfire. It was the largest loss event in British Columbia history, as measured by homes destroyed and damage claims paid by insurance companies. With 27,000 people forced to evacuate their homes and businesses, it was also the largest evacuation in the province’s history. In all, 239 properties were destroyed and insurance companies paid more than $210 million in losses.

These recent examples raise troubling questions about the link between wildfires and climate change and how communities across Canada could become far more vulnerable to massive, intense conflagrations. Insurers are also on the front lines of determining where these exposures exist and helping to develop strategies for loss reduction.

IBC commissioned a report in 2012 entitled Telling the Weather Story by climatologist and professor of Western Ontario, Gordon McBean. The goal of this research, IBC noted, was to “understand the role of severe weather in the increasing damage to personal and commercial properties”. A key part of these losses involve wildfires.

McBean explained in the report that several wildland fire models have been developed and tested using two global climate models, with projections of future fire occurrence levels across Canada for 2030 and 2100.

“While fire activity increases across all of the studied forested regions in Canada, there are major regional variations,” McBean observed. “The Canadian simulations suggest an increase in overall fire occurrence of 25% by 2030 and 75% by the end of the century.”

These figures are confirmed in other studies of global climate change models and the impact on wildfires. Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, notes that several global climate models (GCMs) have analyzed the wildfire risk in Canada and run projected simulation scenarios to 2100.

“The results suggest an increase of 74–118% in area burned by the end of this century,” Flannigan states. ”Note, however, that 95% of the area burned occurs in the Boreal East and Boreal West regions.”

International studies reinforce the reality of increased fire risk due to global warming. Climate change is expected to disrupt future fire patterns, with some regions, such as the western United States, seeing more frequent blazes within the next 30 years, notes a study in the peer-reviewed journal Ecosphere.

Conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, the June 2012 study found increasing fire activity across large parts of the planet. “But the speed and extent to which some of these changes may happen is surprising,” Max Moritz, a fire specialist in U.C. Cooperative Extension and the study’s lead author, suggests in a statement.

The study received support from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Science Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. It used 16 different climate change models to generate what researchers contend is one of the most comprehensive projections to date of how climate change might affect global fire patterns.

Since the time of the report in 2012, the U.S. Midwest has seen an abnormally high incidence of wildfire activity. The most destructive wildfire season in Colorado’s history has resulted in roughly $450 million in insured losses, according to an estimate released July 17 by the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. Together, the Waldo Canyon fire in Colorado Springs and the High Park fire near Fort Collins have burned more than 600 homes in Colorado.

The Waldo Canyon fire is estimated to be the costliest blaze in the state’s history, prompting 4,300 claims and $352.6 million in insured losses, the association noted. The High Park fire resulted in 850 insurance claims and estimated insured losses of $97.1 million, the association stated. Wildfires in Washington State in 2015 also set records for number, size and structures burnt and we see reports each year on wildfires in California, southern Europe and Australia.

The University of Alberta’s Flannigan says there are four main factors for wildfire outbreaks:

1. Weather/climate
2. Fuels (including the condition/age of forests)
3. Ignition activities
4. Human activities

While there is solid evidence pointing to climate change as a key source of greater wildland blazes, other developments are also contributing to more fires.

Natural Resources Canada notes that changes have already taken place in the boreal forest, which covers about one third of the country and stretches across seven provinces. These include major infestations, such as the mountain pine beetle in B.C. and aspen dieback in the Prairies, which have led to increased fire activity in the western boreal forest.

If projections of climate change continue, “tree species may be increasingly maladapted to new climate regimes and will therefore undergo stress,” according to Natural Resources Canada. “Fire activity may increase, with the area burned each year potentially doubling by the end of the century.”

Human-caused fires make up just over 50% of blazes occurring in Canada, yet Flannigan observes that “it is lightning-caused fires that tend to be the major contributor to area burned in the boreal forests of Canada. Ignition probabilities may increase in a warming world due to increased cloud-to-ground lightning discharges.”

And, lastly, there are human activities, particularly the spread of urban and ex-urban sprawl to previously remote forest corridors.

“Increasing and expanding activity in Canada’s wildlands amplifies the risk of fire starts and of investments being in the way of wildfires,” point out Peter Fuglem and Brian Stocks, wildfire experts and members of the Flat Top Complex Wildfire Review Committee appointed by the Alberta provincial government to examine the Slave Lake fires. “If the number and behaviour of wildfires increase and development expands into wildlands, 2003 and 2011 type events will logically become more frequent.”

Climatologists and wildland fire experts agree that the impact of increased wildfire activity will not be uniform across Canada; there will be variable effects in distinct regions. Provinces that comprise the western boreal forest region may face the biggest risk from these blazes.

In Telling the Weather Story, McBean notes that “wildfire occurrence and area burned is expected to increase in Manitoba and Saskatchewan as a result of climate change, and the occurrence of wildfires caused by lightning is expected to increase considerably, with a more moderate increase in human-caused wildfire events. By 2050, a 50% increase in area burned by wildfires is expected in the northern regions of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.”

Similarly, Alberta could face a greater exposure to wildland conflagrations. “Lightning flash density could increase by 20% in southern and northern Alberta by 2050, which has implications for wildfire,” he states. “In central regions, the area burned by wildfires could increase by 15% by 2050.”

In B.C., McBean predicts that “the incidence of severe wildfires is expected to increase significantly throughout B.C.’s forests, perhaps increasing by 50% or more over the period through 2050. There is high confidence in this forecast.”

With the increased risk, property and casualty insurers are on the front lines of offering consumers protection and encouraging loss prevention measures.

One area that IBC has heavily promoted is FireSmart. It is a program run in all provinces that provides information to help communities and homeowners to take action and protect their properties and adjacent natural resources from the risk of wildfires. As a partnership between government, industry and homeowners, FireSmart includes tips on landscaping, surrounding vegetation and forest, construction materials and offers a survey for onsite risk and hazard assessments.

“As past summers have taught us, wildfire danger will be affecting many communities this season. Canadians should consider FireSmart safety tips to protect their family and property,” says Ralph Palumbo, vice-president, Ontario with IBC. Firesmart initiatives include a National Wildfire Community Day each May and lobbying efforts to increase government support for wildfire fuel load reduction programs and funding.

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction has also created a wildfire brochure that lists simple steps to improve homeowner property resistance to fires.

To address the reality of wildfire risks, the Flat Top Complex Wildfire Review Committee, which delivered its report in May 2012, also made dozens of recommendations. Specifically, it put forward 21 recommendations that fall under seven broad themes:

- Wildfire Prevention
- Preparedness and Capacity
- Communications
- Organization and Incident Management
- Post-wildfire Business Resumption
- Policy and Legislation
- Research and Development

In reviewing the FireSmart program under the first theme, Fuglem and Stocks note that “it is a significant challenge for most jurisdictions to maintain priority for FireSmart funding and community level activities.” They recommend a “funding model” that broadens engagement” and “accelerates on-ground treatment.”

The committee made several other recommendations, including:

- Significant enhancement to wildfire prevention
- Expand attack firefighting crews, modeled after U.S. Hot Shot crews
- Enhance standards for operations communications
- Issue fire weather advisories that include wildfire behaviour potential
- Realign wildfire operations to direct live reporting
- Align implementation of the Incident Command System and use of Incident Management teams, together with Alberta Emergency Management Agency
- Review wildfire policies and associated procedures, acts and regulations
- Collaborate to support research, development and monitoring in key areas

In 2015, the Insurance Institute of BC sponsored a series of half day seminars “Impact of Wildfires” which were held in Vancouver, Kelowna and Victoria. Presenters included Steve Taylor with the National Research Council, Peter Fuglem of the Flat Top Complex Review Committee and Greg Thierman from Crawford & Company. Mr. Taylor spoke in regard to computer modeling of wildfires and studies on the impact of climate change. Mr. Fuglem reviewed his role in the BC Wildfires of 2003, the Filmon report and the Flat Top complex report. Mr. Thierman handled insurance claims from both the BC Wildfires of 2003 and the Slave Lake fires of 2011 and reviewed the lessons learned between 2003 and 2011 in regard to preparation and response from Insurers.

“The wildfires of 2011 in Alberta and the 2003 fire season in British Columbia are considered by many wildfire experts to be a harbinger of an emerging new reality,” Fuglem and Stocks conclude. “The 2011 events in the Slave Lake area served to reinforce the message that many Canadian communities are at risk, particularly as the wildland-urban interface continues to expand and fire activity across Canada is forecast to increase as a result of climate change.”

Flannigan is more direct in his conclusion about wildfire activity in Canada. “It's going to happen again,” he told The Weather Network. “It's just a matter of time. The risk is increasing in time, mainly due to climate change.”

These quotes take on even more meaning in view of the devastating Fort McMurray wildfires of 2016.

Major Recent Wildfires

1989: Drought conditions in Manitoba caused more than 1,200 fires to spring up throughout the province, burning through 2.5 million hectares and destroying about 100 homes. About 25,000 people in 32 communities were evacuated.

1998: A blaze in Salmon Arm, British Columbia, forced the evacuation of nearly 7,000 people and destroyed 40 buildings.

2001: A fire in Chisholm, Alberta, about 150 kilometres north of Edmonton, destroyed more than 60 buildings and charred 116,000 hectares of land.

2003: More than 2,500 blazes swept through 2,650 square kilometres of land in the interior of British Columbia in August, destroying 334 homes and killing three firefighters. Insured losses were $200 million.

2011: Wildfires swept through Slave Lake Alberta May 15, destroying more than 700 homes and causing over $700 million in insured losses to date, making it the second costliest insurance disaster in Canadian history.

2016: Fort McMurray suffers the worst wildfire in Canadian history. The entire city was evacuated for over a month and oil sands production was shut down or curtailed. Over 2500 structures were lost and thousands more homes and businesses suffered damage. It is the costliest insured event in Canada to date.

ADVANTAGE Monthly trends papers

This paper is part of an open online library of ADVANTAGE Monthly trends papers, published by the CIP Society for the benefit of its members and of the p&c insurance industry. The trends papers provide a detailed analysis of emerging trends and issues, include context and impact, and commentary from experts in the field.

The CIP Society represents more than 18,000 graduates of the Insurance Institute’s Fellowship (FCIP) and Chartered Insurance Professional (CIP) programs. As the professionals’ division of the Insurance Institute of Canada, the Society’s mission is to advance the education, experience, ethics and excellence of our members. The Society provides a number of programs that promote the CIP and FCIP designations, continuous professional development, professional ethics, mentoring, national leaderships awards, and research on the issues impacting the p&c insurance industry in Canada.