Butt out safely.
That's the warning this week from Whistler Fire Rescue Service after a spate of near-fires thanks to carelessly discarded cigarette butts kept firefighters busy.
"Once we get above 25C, and below 25 degrees relative humidity, a cigarette butt will ignite grass quite easily, and if your throw in the winds that we have got in Whistler, (a fire) can grow very rapidly," said Whistler fire chief Rob Whitton.
"(Smokers) have to dispose of (cigarette butts) responsibly — it's included in our bylaws. If they are caught not doing so they face a potential $500 fine for discarding burning substances either from vehicles, or without care and caution, if people are walking around the village or on trails."
On Aug.5, fire services dealt with flames coming from a local hotel dumpster — the likely culprit was a cigarette butt.
In the following days, firefighters attended several cigarette-caused fires. The first occurred at a residence in Nordic where a lit cigarette discarded out a window ignited the ground below. The second incident occurred at the rope swing on Alpha Lake, where a small fire was extinguished using the nearby water from the lake. There were two separate fires at Loggers Lake, which had crews hiking in some distance to reach the site — both were small smouldering fires, one by the rope swing and the other on the northwest side of the lake.
Another incident occurred at a construction site on Nita Lake where contractors had discarded lit cigarettes on the property. The latest incident occurred in Lost Lake Park adjacent to the clothing-optional dock, where beer cans and other garbage were also found.
"Had any of the incidents gone undiscovered overnight the tinder dry conditions of our forests along with windy conditions could have quickly escalated these small fires into potentially devastating wild fires," stated a release from fire services on Tuesday.
Said Whitton: "...We have so much fuel and such a drying trend right now that (it is very dangerous)."
Whistler is bone dry, with the rain last weekend and the moisture forecast for this weekend expected to have little impact on conditions. There were 10 lightning starts last weekend in the Pemberton Zone, which includes Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish. Forrest Service helicopters were in the air looking for any smouldering fires from the lightning activity.
"We don't expect that this is over," said fire information officer Marg Drysdale explaining that forestry officials are watching for fires to come up out of the ground after smouldering over days from earlier lightning strikes. "Hold-over lightning for us, in fact probably for the next few weeks, is going to be a big issue."
Drysdale is urging anyone who sees smoke to call it into 1-800-663-5555. For current bans and conditions go to www.bcwildfire.ca (see related story page 28).
"We will be watching, we will be doing surface patrols and air patrols, but everybody out there should be watching for that for the next little while," she said.
The fire danger rating in the coastal fire area, which includes Whistler and the rest of the Sea to Sky corridor, is high to extreme.
Wildfire numbers in B.C. are down just now with 941 reported — the average to date at this time is 1,258.
Whistler Blackcomb is also taking the risk seriously, sending out a company-wide email this week. It reminded staff that there is no smoking allowed — that includes guests, that all construction projects from mid-station and below must stop unless approved and that critical areas such as the lower Crystal lift line and the Crystal snowmaking projects must also receive approval to continue.
Vehicles accessing Whistler or Blackcomb Mountains must also be equipped with fire suppression equipment, said the email.
"Whistler Blackcomb obviously takes the risk of wildfires on the mountains extremely seriously," said spokesperson Lauren Everest. "As an organization we have been taking a number of precautions to keep the ski area safe."
So far the "extreme" fire rating has not overly impacted Whistler Blackcomb's construction of the Harmony/Crystal upgrade. When fire risk is rated as "Extreme" construction work near wooded areas must stop.
But the rating has impacted construction elsewhere in Whistler with some contractors calling for the fire safety rating, which is based on readings from a weather station at Base II, to be reviewed.
Said Whitton: "We may be asking the province to take a look at it to see if they are getting the appropriate data they need, and if they are (the weather station) will stay where it is. If it is necessary to move it again that will be a provincial choice.
"From my perspective, it becomes a scheduling issue that (construction managers) need to relay accurately to their clients — July and August are 'iffy' times if you want to do any kind of heavy work and you need to manage that accordingly.
"It is everyone's responsibility to look after this beautiful place we live in both from a regulatory aspect, which is my job and the fire services job, but also the contractors and the general public need to be aware that our actions, or inactions, could have significant effect down the road should something happen."
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