Alberta wildfires: A look at past blazes that caused billions in damages

Click to play video: 'Dozens of Alberta wildfires force thousands to flee'
Dozens of Alberta wildfires force thousands to flee
WATCH: Raging wildfires in northern Alberta have prompted thousands of people from their homes, including the Indigenous community of Fox Lake, where more than 3,500 people live. Neetu Garcha reports from High Level, Alberta on the efforts to fight the flames, how some evacuees had never left their community before, and the fears of what they'll return to – May 5, 2023

Close to 80 wildfires are currently burning in Alberta, forcing thousands from their homes.

Most of central Alberta is under a fire ban after a period of windy and unseasonably hot, dry conditions. So far, at least 20 homes, an RCMP detachment and a store in northern Alberta have been destroyed.

More than 13,000 people across Alberta have been affected in some way or another by mandatory evacuation orders.

Wildfires are not unusual in Alberta but can quickly become both deadly and highly damaging. Here are some recent wildfires that have impacted the province.

High Level wildfire- 2019

Click to play video: 'Wildfire evacuation orders issued across Alberta'
Wildfire evacuation orders issued across Alberta

Persistent drought conditions in northwestern Alberta stretching back to July 2018 were ideal for wildfire.

On May 11, 2019, a wildfire was discovered by a lookout at Chuckegg Creek near High Level in northern Alberta, and was most likely initiated the evening before by a lightning strike. In the late afternoon of May 17, high winds fanned the fire and it was declared out of control.

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Firefighters work on the south end of the Chuckegg Creek fire near Paddle Prairie on June 1, 2019. Courtesy: Alberta Wildfire

The fire grew and as a result, more than 3,000 residents of Mackenzie County, High Level and the Dene Tha’ First Nation were evacuated; residents of Keg River and Carcajou were also evacuated. They were able to return home between June 2 and 5.

The Chuckegg Creek wildfire was deemed out of control for 98 days and burned a total of 3,501 square kilometres. Two other major fires occurred in northern Alberta during that season — the McMillian and Battle fires — in total 15,000 individuals were affected by evacuations.

Fort McMurray wildfire – 2016

In the most expensive natural disaster in Canadian history, Fort McMurray was ravaged by wildfires between April 30 and June 1, 2016.

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The first wildfire was discovered on April 30, north of Fort McMurray. It grew rapidly due to hot and dry weather conditions, doubling in size to 2,656 hectares within hours. On May 3, the wildfire intensified and crossed over Highway 63, cutting off the route to evacuees and prompting the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation to declare a state of local emergency.

There was also a mandatory evacuation order for Fort McMurray’s Lower Townsite and downtown area.

Heat waves are seen as cars and trucks try and get past a wildfire 16 km south of Fort McMurray on Highway 63 on May 6, 2016. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press file photo

Later in the day, the entire city of Fort McMurray was under a mandatory evacuation order. During the evacuations, two people were killed in a car crash. On May 4, the Alberta government declared a provincial state of emergency. The Fort McMurray fire quickly grew to 85,000 hectares as the wildfire spread further north and east, eventually passing through Fort McMurray.

Evacuees who fled north of Fort McMurray had to be airlifted to safety. Some evacuees were taken to Lac La Biche, while the majority were sent to Edmonton and Calgary.

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On May 10, two of the main Fort McMurray fires joined together and formed a massive blaze of 229,000 hectares. On May 16, all workers in work camps and oil sand operations north of Fort McMurray were forced to move south as the wildfire spread further north. Residents of Fort McMurray were allowed to return home on June 1.

Click to play video: 'Fire risk in Alberta even more extreme than 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire'
Fire risk in Alberta even more extreme than 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire

In total, the Fort McMurray fires burned approximately 579,767 hectares of land causing the evacuation of more than 90,000 people and destroying 2,400 homes and businesses, including 530 other buildings that were damaged.

At its peak, there were more than 2,000 firefighters working the fires daily, including helicopters and water bombers. In addition, firefighters received help from 200 firefighters from the United States, 60 from Mexico and 298 from South Africa. Firefighters and emergency response personnel received help from the Canadian Red Cross, which assisted with evacuation efforts.

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In total, the fire resulted in more than $4 billion in damages.

Lethbridge and Coalhurst wildfires – 2012

Two large grass fires resulted in local states of emergency and evacuations in southern Alberta in September 2012.

The first fire broke out in the Blood Reserve, near Coalhurst and Lethbridge. Roughly 2,200 residents in Coalhurst, as well as residents in a Lethbridge trailer park, were evacuated and sent to safe zones in Lethbridge.

Grass fire and smoke stop traffic on Highway 509 on the Blood Reserve west of Lethbridge, Alberta on Sept. 10, 2012. Jaime Vedres/The Canadian Press file photo

A second grass fire burned near the town of Milk River, forcing about 800 people out of their homes. Both grass fires damaged several sheds and outbuildings and destroyed one house. There was also one fire-related injury reported.

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Residents were allowed to return to their homes on Sept. 10 in Coalhurst, and Sept. 11 in Lethbridge.

Slave Lake wildfire – 2011

Forty-nine wildfires in north-central Alberta burned across the Lesser Slave River Region, resulting in more than $500 million in damages in May 2011.

A state of emergency was declared by the Municipal District of Lesser Slave River No. 124 on May 15, after a wildfire that started in Slave Lake began to spread. It devastated the town of Slave Lake, where 374 buildings were destroyed and 52 damaged by the flames.

All that remains of a house in Slave Lake, Alberta, on May 16, 2011, is a set of steps. Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press file photo

Roughly 7,000 people were evacuated from Slave Lake and 735 individuals and families lost their homes. Outside Slave Lake, 59 other buildings were destroyed and 32 were damaged.

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Other affected communities included High Prairie, Little Buffalo, Red Earth Creek, Loon Lake First Nation (FN), Whitefish Lake FN and Woodland Cree FN.

The wildfire ended on May 22.

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