Canadian Underwriter

Is B.C.’s 2021 wildfire season the worst on record?

November 9, 2021   by Jason Contant

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British Columbia’s 2021 wildfire season was severe, but it wasn’t the costliest on record from a suppression standpoint, according to a summary report from the BC Wildfire Service.

Between April 1 and Sept. 30, 2021, a total of 1,610 wildfires burned 868,203 hectares in B.C. The total cost of wildfire suppression during this time was $565 million. This compares to the 2017 fire season, which saw only 1,353 wildfires but a cost of $649 million.

“After two years of below-average fire activity, the BC Wildfire Service faced a tremendously challenging wildfire season in 2021,” the report said. “At the height of the wildfire season, the number of active wildfires in B.C. was over 300.”

The 2021 season brought a number of challenges, including:

  • The historic “heat dome” in late June and early July, which brought record-breaking temperatures that were well above seasonal averages and accelerated the drying and curing of fuels to dangerous levels. The village of Lytton set the all-time Canadian heat record for three days in a row, culminating in a high of 49.6°C. Approximately 90% of the village was destroyed by wildfire; initial insured damages were $78 million;
  • A limit on B.C.’s ability to import out-of-province firefighting resources due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which also posed potential health risks to staff;
  • The high number of active wildfires (not only in B.C., but throughout Canada and the western United States), which led to multiple agencies competing for firefighting resources and equipment.

As of Nov. 8, the province saw 1,633 fires and 869,172 hectares burned, drastically higher than the 10-year average of 1,352 fires and 348,917 hectares burned.

And although total firefighting costs for the year could grow from $565 million because the season doesn’t officially end until next March, the figure won’t surpass 2017’s $649 million in costs, The Canadian Press reported last week. (Fire activity over the late fall and winter months is typically very low.)

From a claims perspective, adjusters saw “everything from total losses to [additional living expenses (ALE)] and everything in between,” Anita Paulic, director of operations & catastrophe response for ClaimsPro in Vancouver, told Canadian Underwriter in August. “For me, just hearing that firefighters with years of experience are saying that they’ve never seen anything like it before is a good indication of what we’re up against out here,” she added.

Shane Swinson, senior vice president, insurance portfolio at First Onsite Property Restoration, said in early August that “the biggest impact that we’re seeing right now from a claims perspective” is ALE claims.

The province of British Columbia issued a provincial state of emergency July 21, which stayed in effect until Sept. 14. Approximately 60% of the wildfires were human-caused, 35% were natural-caused and the remaining 5% were undetermined. A total of 181 evacuation orders and 304 evacuation alerts were issued.


Feature image: The remains of a large structure and vehicles destroyed by the Lytton Creek wildfire are seen on the side of the Trans-Canada Highway near Lytton, B.C., on Sunday, August 15, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

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