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Whistlerites on high alert as hot, dry conditions persist

With fire risk ‘above extreme,’ personal responsibility is key
n-evac and wildfire
Whistler’s FireSmart program is seeing good uptake again this year.

Whistler’s firefighters were kept on their toes on the last day of the long weekend, as a trio of calls had the Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) responding up and down the valley on Monday, Aug. 2.

Thankfully, only one of the calls—at the Whistler Transfer Station—required a fire to be extinguished, and the blaze was kept from spreading to the surrounding forest.

“That was the main concern—to just make sure it didn’t transfer over outside the property, because there is quite a bit of forest around there,” said WFRS Chief John McKearney, adding that the cause of the fire is under investigation.

The call came in at about 9 p.m., and WFRS crews—assisted by Garibaldi Fire Rescue, which helped shuttle water back and forth to the site to ensure a steady supply—had the fire knocked down by midnight, McKearney said.

“It was confined to the building that the garbage is put into … one of their machines on site had to bring the garbage out while the firefighters were keeping a mist on it, and then trying to put it out as best they could,” he said.

Close to 30 paid-on-call firefighters attended the scene to assist the four-person career crew, and RCMP and BC Ambulance members were on site as well.

No injuries were reported.

Earlier in the day, WFRS crews attended a report of a small fire on the Lost Lake disc golf course, but found it extinguished by the time they arrived.

“It was pretty minor; it was about a metre by a metre,” McKearney said. “By the time they got there a conscientious group of bystanders got it mostly damped down.”

Also on Aug. 2, another report of smoke had WFRS crews attend a home near Alta Lake—where they found a well-constructed wood-fired hot tub.

“Those are still allowed, though not recommended,” McKearney said. “He was good about it, he said no problem, [and] he shut it down.”

The calls speak to a community on high alert as B.C. struggles with another difficult fire season, and McKearney encouraged Whistlerites to keep calling the WFRS at the first sign of smoke.

“Everything is so dry … the best way to ensure our community is safe is to get on it as quick as possible, so we need our community people to keep bringing that forward,” he said.

“We are in the thick of it right now. We’re above extreme [fire danger] right now, and we need all eyes on deck here.”

As of Aug. 5, all CSA approved portable propane campfires are no longer allowed in Whistler when the Fire Danger Rating is Extreme.

Report fires in Whistler by calling 911. Outside of Whistler, call *5555 on a cell phone or 1-800-663-5555.

PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY IS KEY

While Whistler has had its Sea to Sky Multimodal Evacuation Plan in place since 2019, there is only so much the municipality can do in the event of an emergency, and the main message from local officials is for every individual to take some time to prepare in case the resort must be evacuated.

“There is a degree of responsibility for every citizen to have some level of knowledge on this, and some level of preparedness going into the summer, or any emergency,” said Ryan Donohue, emergency program coordinator with the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

“Just think about it. Think about yourself and your own personal preparedness. What would I do if there was nobody here to help me?”

Despite best efforts, any evacuation scenario in Whistler is bound to be chaotic.

“If you take for instance the town of Lytton, and the speed at which wildfire went through and kind of decimated that town, I don’t believe that there is an operational plan in place anywhere, especially an evacuation plan, that would have changed that situation,” Donohue said.

“So really what we’re talking about here is creating a framework where decision making can be made in an effective and timely manner, but what it comes down to is how much time do we have?”

If you do only one thing to prepare, in Mayor Jack Crompton’s opinion, it should be to sign up for the Whistler Alert.

“I also strongly recommend everyone prepare a personal evacuation plan, and you can find resources for that and other things on whistler.ca/emergency,” Crompton said.

“Individuals and families are critical to a successful response. Knowing where to find the right information is critical, and having that conversation around the dinner table is a big deal as well.”

The RMOW and other local institutions like the WFRS and Whistler Blackcomb are actively preparing for a wildfire through training scenarios, and the RMOW is currently working through a detailed operation plan that “lays out the nuts and bolts of how we would go through the process of initiating either a mass evacuation or a phased evacuation of Whistler,” Donohue said.

If the COVID-19 pandemic presented some added anxiety during last year’s fire season, it has somewhat ironically helped the RMOW better prepare in the event of a wildfire emergency, said general manager of resort experience Jessie Gresley-Jones.

“When you think back a year ago, we were all nervous, and the ability to use technology effectively was cumbersome, and trying to do that in the midst of another emergency would not have been conducive,” he said. “We’re in a very different spot today … we know how to connect [remotely], and we know how to respond, even if we’re not face-to-face.”

Crompton agreed, recalling a particularly bad fire season some four years ago when he served as chair of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District.

“We had a whole bunch of fires, and the technology that we used was clunky and difficult. We’ve worked out the kinks,” he said. “It feels like in a lot of ways the last year and a half has moved us a big step forward towards a more effective use of the tools we have.”

Indeed, the constant forced adaptation of the COVID-19 crisis has instilled a new resilience at municipal hall, Donohue added.

“I think a lot of the things that came out of that adaption are lessons learned that we can take moving forward, knowing that we have to be adaptable and flexible,” he said.

“Emergency situations are never the same twice, so the lessons learned and the adaptability that people have come to know over the last year and a half of COVID will only help to increase their resilience during any emergency.”

B.C. WILDFIRES EXCEEDING 10-YEAR AVERAGE

As of Tuesday, Aug. 3, the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) had responded to about 1,312 wildfires, resulting in just over 556,000 hectares burned, said BCWS director of fire centre operations Rob Schweitzer in an Aug. 3 conference call with media.

The 2021 total is well above the 10-year average for this time of year of 760 fires, burning 114,000 hectares.

There were 249 active wildfires burning across the province on Aug. 3, 34 of which were considered wildfires of note. 

Of those, 173 of these were due to natural causes, while 17 were human caused.

“I’m really pleased to report it’s been a week of steady progress, and over the past seven days the average number of new fires per day has remained at around or below seven, and the total number of fires burning at any one time has remained below 250,” Schweitzer said, adding that wildfire smoke continues to hamper BCWS aviation operations.

“The safety of our staff is always the No. 1 priority, and we need to follow Transport Canada regulations when we’re flying,” he said.

“Even with those visibility challenges, we’ve flown over 4,000 hours with our air tanker fleet, and over 23,000 hours with our helicopters.”

Some brief periods of rain over the weekend have helped curb fire behaviour, allowing crews to make progress, but “the amount of rain was not enough to make any long-term impact,” Schweitzer said.

“Conditions for the rest of the week remain variable across the province. It’s only early August, and there’s still a significant amount of fire on the landscape. Everyone needs to remain diligent,” he said.

“I don’t want anybody to be lulled into [thinking] the season’s over. It is only August 3, and there is a lot of summer left.”

In the Coastal Fire Centre, just 15 fires were burning as of Aug. 3, though the 163 to date this year are also above the average of below 100, said information assistant Gordon Robinson.

“Despite the fact that it seems like it’s been a relatively light fire season on the coast, we have had lots of starts, and generally on the coast it’s usually human caused,” Robinson said.

The forecast is calling for cooler temperatures and rain this weekend, “which is good news, but it’s temporary good news, because next week we’re expecting the temperatures to get back up into the 30s, and to be hot and dry again,” he added.

“I would really encourage people not to get complacent just because it’s raining out. The forest seals are still very dry, potential for starting fires is still very high, even if it doesn’t feel like it on Saturday when we may get a decent bit of rain.”

Find the latest at bcwildfire.ca.

RMOW ENCOURAGES RESIDENTS TO BE FIRESMART

Meanwhile, Whistler’s FireSmart program continues to see good uptake, with 136 serviced so far this year through the community chipper program, and 18 FireSmart work days organized by local neighbourhoods (with six more scheduled).

The RMOW recommends completing a FireSmart assessment prior to booking the chipper service, which runs weekly until mid October. Both services can be booked by emailing firesmart@whistler.ca.

Whistler’s FireSmart crew continues to treat forest landscape around the Valley Trail, on parkland, and on municipal land adjacent to private property, said FireSmart coordinator Scott Rogers.

It’s important for homeowners to understand that the landscape is only half of the wildfire equation, and that FireSmarting buildings and yard materials plays a large role in keeping Whistler safe, Rogers said.

While most people know that the roof is the “most important structural factor” in resisting wildfire, less commonly known is that the bottom part of wood siding—where it intersects with horizontal surfaces like the ground, decking or step-ups—has the same hazard-level rating, Rogers said.

“This is the place where we see ember accumulation and new ignition (ember throw is responsible for the majority of structural wildfire loss). Combustible decking is the same. So is piling firewood against the house,” he said.

“Each of these factors alone immediately put the property into the high hazard category, which quickly climbs into the extreme category with other hazard factors.”

The more Whistlerites who take action on their own properties, the safer Whistler will be in the event of a wildfire, Rogers added.

“We are all part of the same puzzle and the pieces closest to us are most significant. Neighbours should be talking about Whistler’s wildfire reality and FireSmart solutions and working together,” he said.

“It’s not about looking out at the forest and thinking ‘we need to do something about that.’ We need to step off the front step, walk towards the forest, look back at our properties and ask, ‘how can I keep that from igniting?’”