This study created a 35-year time series of wildfire burned areas in Canada from 1986 to 2020, using data from satellite imagery and aerial surveys.
Wildfires are a major natural disturbance in Canada that are postulated to increase under a warming climate. To derive accurate trends in burned area and to quantify the effects of fire frequency, duration, and extent, a sufficiently long time series of reliable burned area maps is required. With that in mind, we extended Canada’s National Burned Area Composite (NBAC) dataset from its previous start year (2004) back to 1986. NBAC consists of annual maps in polygon format where the area burned in each fire event is represented by the best available delineation among various mapping methods and data sources of varying quality. Ordered from more to less reliability, in the new 35-year time series (1986 to 2020), 10% of the total burned area was derived from airborne and high-resolution (<5 m) satellite imagery, 81% from change detection methods using 30 m Landsat satellite imagery, and the remaining 9% was largely from aerial surveys. Total (Canada-wide) annual burned area estimates ranged from 215,797 ha in 2020 to 6.7 million ha (Mha) in 1989. We computed 95% confidence intervals for the estimate of each year from 1986 to 2020 based on the accuracy and relative contribution in that year of the different data sources, for both the new NBAC time series and the polygon version of the Canadian National Fire Database (CNFDB), a commonly used source of spatially explicit data on burned area in Canada. NBAC confidence intervals were on average ±9.7% of the annual figure, about one-third the width of the confidence intervals derived for CNFDB. The NBAC time series also included nearly 5000 fire events (totalling 4 Mha, with the largest event being 120,661 ha in size) that are missing in the CNFDB. In a regional analysis for the Northwest Territories, retroactive fire mapping from Landsat imagery reduced historical estimates by 3 Mha (16%), which would result in a 1.6 Mha increase in the reported undisturbed critical habitat for threatened woodland caribou. The NBAC dataset is freely downloadable from the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System.