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Alberta wildfire season 2023: How does it compare?

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Alberta is undergoing an "unprecedented" wildfire season as nearly 100 fires as of Tuesday, May 9, burn across the province.

Premier Danielle Smith declared a state of emergency on May 6 and more than 24,000 Albertans remained under evacuation orders on Tuesday.

CTV News Edmonton compiled data and charts to compare this wildfire season to years past.

CURRENT SITUATION

On Tuesday at 4 p.m., the Alberta Wildfire Status Dashboard showed 86 active fires: 26 categorized as out of control, 17 as being held and 43 under control.

There are 11 wildfires of note in the forest protection area of Alberta. These fires are considered to be of significant public interest and may pose a threat to public safety, communities or critical infrastructure, according to Alberta Wildfire.

Of the active wildfires, 16 per cent are suspected to have been caused by humans and nine per cent believed to have been started by lightning. The remaining 74 per cent are still under investigation.

NUMBER OF WILDFIRES

This year to date, there have been 416 wildfires, more than double the 182 registered by the same time last year. The more than 400 fires is a greater number than any of the last five years had by the second week in May.

Alberta had a total of 1,246 wildfires last season, according to Alberta Wildfire data, which means the province has reached 33 per cent of last year's total after just over two months into the wildfire season.

AMOUNT OF HECTARES BURNED

The size of the area that's burned is also greater than what is considered normal by this time of year.

The five-year average by early May based on 2018-2022 is 542 hectares. Year to date, 410,441 ha have burned in Alberta, by comparison.

In the last eight years, 2019 had the highest total number of hectares, finishing the season with 883,411 ha burned. By this time in 2019, 621 ha had burned, compared to this year's more than 410,000.

Only five months into this year, 2023 has already surpassed the yearly burn totals of 2022, 2021, 2020, 2018 and 2017.

HOW DOES IT COMPARE?

The years 2011 and 2016 are familiar to Albertans as particularly difficult wildfire seasons.

In May of 2011, almost 400 homes and businesses were destroyed by wildfire in the town of Slave Lake, causing $700 million in damage, and is considered to be one of Canada's most expensive disasters.

In 2016, also during the month of May, 80,000 Albertans fled their homes in Fort McMurray as a wildfire, then estimated to already be 10,000 hectares in size, threatened the community. Despite the efforts of thousands of firefighters, some of which came to Alberta's aid from across the world, about 2,400 buildings burned to the ground.

In 2011, Alberta had 1,139 wildfires, and a season burn total of 792,173 ha.

In 2016, the province had more fires – 1,338 – but fewer hectares burned, with a total of 611,000.

In comparison, just over two months into this wildfire season, Alberta has reached 52 per cent of 2011's season burn total, and 67 per cent of 2016's hectares burned.

When looking back at the last eight years, the year with the highest number of hectares burned was 2019 which had a total of 883,411. Alberta has reached 46 per cent of that number so far this season.

LARGEST FIRES ON RECORD

According to Alberta Wildfire data, the largest wildfire on record was the Richardson wildfire in 2011 that burned 577,469 ha north of Fort McMurray.

The second largest was the Horse River wildfire in 2016 which burned over 491,000 ha.

Also of note was the Chuckegg Creek fire in 2019. The town of High Level ordered around 4,000 residents to evacuate as the then 69,000-hectare fire burned only three kilometers away. That fire grew to over 350,000 ha and was classified as out of control for more than two months. It was first downgraded to "being held" status in July of that year.

The fifth largest was the McMillan wildfire also in 2019. That wildfire began near Wabasca in mid-May and grew in size until it forced the evacuation of Wabasca and Peerless Trout First Nation. It totalled 273,045 ha, and took until July 1 for firefighters to get the fire under control. In October of that year, RCMP and Alberta government investigators determined the fire started as a result of arson.

This year, during the month of May, there have been eight wildfires larger than 10,000 ha in size, with the largest being wildfire EWF-031 located 14 kilometres southeast of Edson. As of May 9, Alberta Wildfire has classified it as being out of control and at 77,920 ha. That wildfire is seven-and-a-half times smaller than the largest one in Alberta's history (Richardson wildfire) for context.

WILDFIRE RESOURCES

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