British Columbia·In Depth

Area of B.C. burned by wildfires at a 56-year high

Wildfires in B.C. this year have burned through the most territory of any year since 1961 and the summer is far from over.

Blazes this year have burned through the most territory since 1961 and the season's not over

Fires have burned more of B.C. this year than any year since 1961. (Shawn Cahill)

Wildfires in B.C. this year have burned through the most territory of any year since 1961 and the summer is far from over.

CBC News analyzed B.C. Wildfire data documenting every fire in the province since 1950. Here is what we found.

Wildfires have burned an area larger than Metro Vancouver

Wildfires have burned through approximately 380,000 hectares, or 3,800 square kilometres of territory since March, which is a little larger than Metro Vancouver plus Abbotsford and Mission. This year recently surpassed 2014, making it the Number 3 year in terms of land area burned since 1950. 

This year, however, pales in comparison to a record fire year in 1958, when 8,600 square kilometres of the province, an area larger than the Greater Toronto Area, burned.

1958, a hot dry August in B.C.

6 years ago
Duration 3:35
The BC Forest Service staff mobilizes town residents and tourists to fight a fire near Canal Flats in the East Kootenays. Filmed in the forest around Nelson during one of B.C.'s worst wildfire seasons.

The biggest fire that year was in the Kechika Valley in the province's north and crossed into the Yukon, but there were also serious fires at Chilliwack and Harrison lakes, as well as near Squamish. At least four people died as a result of the fires.

The next-worst year was 1961, which saw several large fires around Prince George and Burns Lake.

Location makes a difference

However, the number of hectares burned isn't necessarily the best gauge of a wildfire season's severity, said fire information officer Ryan Turcot with the B.C. Wildfire Service.

"The location of these large-hectare fires is a big factor to consider. A large fire burning near a town, for example, has a far larger human impact than a wildfire burning in a completely remote area."

In terms of human impact, 2017 has been a bad fire season, he added.

"The 2017 fire season is certainly shaping up to be one of the most severe seasons in recent years in terms of human impact, just given the amount of large wildfires that have come close to towns and, in many instances, prompted evacuations." 

Every wildfire in B.C. since 1950, mapped

Number of human-caused wildfires dropping

Historically, people have been responsible for more wildfires (53 per cent) than lightning (47 per cent). But the number of fires caused by humans has dropped off precipitously in recent years.

While this is an encouraging trend, especially when coupled with B.C.'s growing population, it doesn't tell the whole story, fire information officer Turcot said.

Increasingly hot and dry summers raise the risk of wildfires both occurring and displaying more intense behaviour, so people need to be more vigilant than ever in preventing human-caused fires, he said.

"When you look at a fire season like this year's, even one human-caused fire is too many because it ends up diverting critical resources away from the other, unavoidable wildfires that we're responding to."

This year, more than half (51 per cent) have been caused by lightning and 39 per cent by humans. Investigators have not determined a cause for the remaining fires.

The year with the most fires was 1994, when almost 3,000 of the 4,000 fires were caused by lightning.

Our methodology

CBC News analyzed two datasets from the B.C. Wildfire service containing historical (1950-2016) data and information from the current fire season (March-July 24, 2017). 

We then filtered out false alarms, nuisance fires (such as campfires left burning), duplicates and training fires. This analysis includes the remaining 142,826 historical fires and 803 between March 1 and July 28, 2017.

The full methodology is posted on GitHub.


Tara Carman

Senior Reporter

Tara Carman is a senior reporter with CBC’s national investigative unit with a focus on data-driven stories. She has been a journalist in Vancouver since 2007 and previously worked in Victoria, Geneva and Ottawa. You can reach her at