As forest fires continue to rage each summer, we’re reminded that all it takes is a combination of dry, windy conditions and lightning strikes to turn small brush fires into massive, devastating blazes. Canada is home to 10 percent of the world’s forests and, according to Natural Resources Canada, wildland fires have consumed an average of 2.3 million hectares annually over the past 25 years. Most are small fires that are extinguished soon after igniting, but history has shown that occasionally, drought and wind can cause wildfires to grow out of control. Here’s a look at some of the most damaging forest fires in Canadian history.
More than 1 million hectares of land, and between 160 and 500 lives, are believed to have been lost in the Miramichi fire of 1825. One third of the houses in Fredericton were also destroyed. The fire was ignited when several small settler and logging fires grew out of control during a summer drought.
It took mere hours for fire to destroy everything within a 150 kilometre region of Quebec, and although just seven lives were lost in the blaze of 1870, nearly one third of the Saguenay region’s population lost everything (their homes, possessions, more). This fire was also ignited by settlers clearing land with brush fires during unusually dry springtime conditions.
In 1911, Northern Ontario forests were devastated during the peak of Timmins’ Porcupine Gold Rush when a dry spell and gusty winds caused small bush fires to grow out of control, destroying more than 200,000 hectares of land. The exact number of lives lost is not known because prospectors camped throughout the forests (reports ranged from 70 to the thousands) but the official death toll is 73.
Ontario’s most devastating fire started on July 29, 1916 when a settler's “slash and burn” clearing fire grew out of control, destroying more than 200,000 hectares of land and killing more than 225 people. The tragedy spurred the creation of legislation that we now know as the Forest Fires Prevention Act.
More than 2.8 million hectares were destroyed and at least 13 people killed in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The cause of the fire is unknown but it’s believed to have been started by natural causes, with many different fires simultaneously burning over a large area of land.
Dubbed the largest fire in recent Ontario history, the Red Lake fire of 1980 burned more than 133,000 hectares of land before it was finally extinguished by nature.
1989 marked Manitoba’s worst-ever fire season, with1,200 fires burning across more than 3.28 million hectares of forest during the dry spring and summer months. It cost more than $68 million to fight the blaze and roughly 25,000 people had to be evacuated from 32 communities.
Many will remember this devastating wildfire from 1998, as it’s one of the worst in British Columbia’s history. It leveled more than 6,000 hectares of land, destroyed 40 buildings and forced the evacuation of 7,000 people.
In 2003, British Columbia was once again rocked by wildfires when a lightning strike ignited a blaze that blew through roughly 25,600 hectares and destroyed 238 homes, causing the evacuation of more than 33,000 people from Kelowna and Naramata. Remarkably, there was no loss of human life.
Sadly, arson was the cause of this massive and costly wildfire, resulting in $700 million in damages (which, in 2011, made it the second most expensive insured disaster in Canadian history). The fires forced the evacuation of 7,000 Slave Lake residents and burned more than 400 buildings.