Whistler left in smoke as fire crews work through tough conditions to battle blazes 

Three wildfires near Pemberton have spread to combined area of more than 30,000 hectares

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BC WILDFIRE SERVICE - BOULDER BLAZE A wildfire rages at Boulder Creek west of Pemberton on July 4.
  • Photo courtesy of the BC Wildfire Service
  • BOULDER BLAZE A wildfire rages at Boulder Creek west of Pemberton on July 4.

Provincial fire crews continue to battle several blazes near Pemberton that have steadily grown in size and left the Sea to Sky region covered in a thick blanket of smoke.

However, at press time the smoky conditions haven't appeared to dampen Whistler's appeal to visitors quite yet, with businesses reporting little impact to their bottom lines.

Joey Gibbons, owner of several resort bars and clubs, said it's been business as usual at his establishments.

"People still seem to be coming out to our patios," he said. "We had... a band out on the Longhorn patio last night. The patio was full and everyone seemed to be into it."

At the Hilton, a small number of guests have opted to shorten their stays, but overall, rooms continue to fill up, said general manager Stephen Webb.

"We've got information in the guest rooms for them about the actual air quality and what the projections in the forecast are, so we're communicating what the issues are and lots of folks seem to be OK with it still, but there are some, particularly with younger kids, who may have health issues, who are looking to cut their trip short by a day," he said.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden said the situation is very unusual thanks to temperature inversions that are keeping the smoke trapped over the resort.

"We don't typically have a lot of inversions in the summer, and even if we do they don't last for days and days and days typically," she said, speaking after council's regular meeting on July 7.

"...I suspect that once the inversion lifts the smoke will drift back out into the atmosphere. That's not to say we're not going to have smoke. We will, because as long as there's fires close by we will have some smoke."

She is hopeful it won't discourage visitors from visiting Whistler, or cancelling bookings.

"It's just one of those things that hopefully won't discourage tourists from coming, people who perhaps have some respiratory issues might think twice about coming, but it's the nature of the environment these days here in Whistler and in British Columbia.

"Whistler is open for business. Check the websites (whistler.ca or whistler.com) to see if there's any air quality advisories.

"This is highly unusual, so people simply need to check the website and make their own decisions."

Meanwhile, thousands of ticketholders are waiting with baited breath — and not just because of the deteriorating air quality — as questions emerge around the fate of the much-anticipated Pemberton Music Festival, scheduled to kick off July 16.

Local government officials met with festival organizers this week to gauge "how to measure conditions in order to determine if it's safe to carry on with the festival or not," explained Pemberton Mayor Mike Richman.

Festivalgoers can breathe a sigh of relief, however, as organizers assured the public that, for now, the event will go ahead as planned.

"With the current condition, direction and location of the fires, there are no plans to cancel the festival," read a statement from organizers. "However, we cannot predict what Mother Nature has in store in the days to come, nor speculate what the situation will look like a week from now with regard to air quality or the proximity of the fires."

Locally, Whistler firefighters have also been challenged by the powder-keg-like conditions, not to mention the recklessness of a few thoughtless individuals.

"There is what seems like a complete disregard for the conditions out there," said Whistler Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood. "There are a few spots around the community — Fitzsimmons spit, Emerald Forest, Loggers Lake — where campfires occur frequently. Our crews are out doing regular patrols but we're really relying on the public to call us as soon as they see anything."

Kirkwood was especially frustrated with two recent fires discovered along the Valley Trail and one south of Whistler Secondary School that investigators believe were intentionally set.

"It's reckless, it's selfish," she said. "People were setting off fireworks. How does that seem like a smart thing to do?"

There are currently three significant wildfires around Pemberton, joining the nearly 200 blazes currently burning across B.C.

As of Tuesday, July 7, the Elaho, Boulder Creek and Nahatlatch wildfires have spread to a combined area of approximately 30,000 hectares. All three have grown significantly in recent days with gusty conditions hampering fire crews' efforts.

An evacuation order first issued by the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) on Saturday, July 4, remains in effect for both sides of the Lillooet Forest Service Road, from the nine-kilometre mark to the top of Pemberton Valley.

The SLRD also issued a State of Local Emergency.

Close to 200 workers were evacuated from the Innergex IPP worksite at Boulder Creek as a result. A spokesperson with the energy company said it has so far proved difficult to assess the level of damage at the sites.

No residential or agricultural properties are at risk at this time.

Air quality readings in Whistler have been off the charts this week, reaching a "very high risk" rating of 11 this week, although the air quality improved slightly overnight on Wednesday.

Approximately a dozen people have been treated at health care facilities in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton for mild respiratory symptoms, such as a sore throat and shortness of breath.

An air quality advisory and wildfire smoke advisory have been issued for the Sea to Sky . Health officer Dr. James Lu with Vancouver Coastal Health warned residents in the corridor to refrain from over exerting themselves.

"What we recommend is that you adjust your activity according to how you feel. In particular I think this is true for the Sea to Sky corridor — Whistler, Pemberton and Squamish — where the air quality is much poorer at the moment compared to Metro Vancouver," he said at a press conference held Tuesday.

Exposure to smoke can be particularly harmful to vulnerable populations like infants and the elderly, as well as those with underlying medical conditions such as diabetes, and lung or heart disease. Health officials are advising the public to stay indoors when possible, especially in spaces with air conditioners and filters.

The current fire rating for Whistler, along with the rest of B.C., sits at extreme, meaning no outdoor fires of any kind are permitted. Kirkwoood urged the public to call 911 as soon as a fire is discovered.

The extreme rating is expected to stay in place for at least the next week, according to the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations.

Wildfires have so far cost the province in excess of $90 million, placing a considerable strain on resources.

"The availability of resources is at a critical level and any significant increase in fire load will be difficult for us to manage," said Kurtis Isfeld with the BC Wildfire Service. "As such, we've begun prioritizing fires based on human life and safety, property, critical values, critical habitat and timber."

Fortunately, the province will be able to ease some of that pressure with 70 personnel arriving from Ontario to help in firefighting efforts. They will be deployed throughout the Coastal and Southeast fire centres as needed. Extra help is also coming from Australia and New Zealand.

To keep up to date with current wildfire conditions, visit www.bcwildfire.ca.

- With files by Braden Dupuis.

- For sports story on the smoke's impact in the region see page 48

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