Whistler-area snowpack above average despite early spring heat 

Forest-fire fuel management remains top of mind for many

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF WHISTLER BLACKCOMB - Snow show Whistler Blackcomb's environmental resource manager Arthur De Jong said while snow was above average at mid and upper mountain levels, Whistler valley was a different story.
  • PHOTO courtesy of Whistler Blackcomb
  • Snow show Whistler Blackcomb's environmental resource manager Arthur De Jong said while snow was above average at mid and upper mountain levels, Whistler valley was a different story.

After record-high temperatures through April and May, many parts of B.C. are now experiencing record-low snowpacks for this time of year, according to the provincial government.

"At a province-wide level, it's the most rapid melt that we've seen," said Dave Campbell, head of the provincial River Forecast Centre.

"We've got the lowest province-wide basin index since we (started) monitoring these in 1980."

Most of the province's snow survey locations experienced 100 to 300 millimetres of snow water loss over the May 1 to May 15 period, with current melt rates of 10 to 20 mm per day at most automated snow weather stations.

But the South Coast region, which includes Whistler, is actually ahead of where it was at this time last year, with 57 per cent of the normal snowpack still remaining.

"Last year, for example, it was at 11 per cent," Campbell said.

"We did start with a lot more snow this year, and it's been melting quickly, but we're in better shape in some regions, like the South Coast, compared to last year."

Whistler Blackcomb was blessed with 12 metres of snow this season, said mountain planning and environmental resource manager Arthur De Jong, while the typical average is just over 10 metres.

"But we have to be careful how we look at that, because where is the snow?" De Jong said. "Certainly this year, typical of an El Nino year, the snow was mid and upper mountain, and we are in three different climatic zones here... we have quite a change in the forest cover as you get down in the valley."

What could be a low fire hazard rating at tree line could be high-to-extreme in the valley, De Jong said.

And with visions of Fort McMurray still fresh in the collective memory, there's no time like the present to talk about fire safety.

"This is something that's been really keeping me awake at night of late — the growing hazard, and the fire fuel load that the resort has," De Jong said.

"When the conditions get very dry and we become volatile, the fuel load we have is so significant."

Being a conservationist, De Jong used to have debates about removing a single tree in Whistler. That's not the case any more.

"Now I step back and realize we need to remove thousands, if not tens of thousands of trees, to ultimately lower the fuel load, thereby reducing our fire hazard," he said.

On-mountain, Whistler Blackcomb is well prepared to deal with fires.

When a blaze ignited on Blackcomb in 2009, the fire chief at the time remarked to De Jong that it was the "best-plumbed" mountain he'd ever seen.

"We have over 52 million gallons of water, high pressure water, ready to be delivered at any fire site," De Jong said. "And we have so many pumping options that we can typically replenish those reservoirs quite quickly."

The mountain operator has more than 100 staff members trained in fire suppression that can help in the event of a blaze.

The dozens of ski runs carved into the mountains could also provide precious time and space for fire crews.

"(WB's ski runs) are excellent fuel breaks through our forests," said Whistler Fire and Rescue Service chief Geoff Playfair.

"Those kinds of things — the golf courses, the highways, the hydro right of ways, the railway tracks — all provide breaks in the forest, and even our trail network in the valley is an amazing source of fuel breaks."

That being said, there's still a lot of fuel in the valley, which could prove catastrophic in Whistler's tightly packed, densely forested subdivisions.

"(It's about) being prepared, but also being preventative too, and educating — making sure people understand risks and understand what they can do about it to mitigate risks, and for people to be diligent and vigilant as well," Playfair said.

Homeowners are reminded to use FireSmart practices on their properties.

The Whistler Fire Rescue Service offers free assessments of homes to ensure they meet FireSmart standards.

Head to www.whistler.ca/fire/firesmart for more information on how you can help reduce wildfire risk.



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