Whistler trains while Lillooet fights fires in earnest 

Mock wildfire scenario showcases new satellite technology

As Whistler responded to a mock wildfire threatening the resort last weekend, the real thing was actually unfolding two hours away in Lillooet.

Last Saturday morning Whistler’s emergency response teams jumped into action in response to a fictional early morning lightning strike at Cougar Mountain.

Meanwhile, Lillooet was fighting to contain a growing wildfire, sparked by a real lightning strike.

The irony of the situation was not lost on RMOW Fire Chief Bruce Hall, who called the timing of Whistler’s planning exercise impeccable.

He said the lightning strike in Lillooet, which hit on Friday afternoon, highlights the unpredictable nature of wildfires.

It could happen any time and anywhere he said. The key is to be prepared.

"Anytime we can do an exercise on this scale… there’s no better way to prepare for it," said Hall at the incident command post after the three-hour training exercise wrapped up on Saturday.

The wildfire training exercise was planned more than a year and a half ago.

It was a chance for emergency response teams in the resort, including municipal authorities who become part of the Emergency Operations Centre in the event of an emergency, to get a close up look of some new firefighting technology.

Showcased only once before, REMSAT or Real-time Emergency Management via Satellite, played a key role in Saturday’s wildfire scenario.

The technology allows firefighters to communicate with each other and with the incident management team through satellite communications. This removes routine communications from overcrowded voice channels.

Jeff Berry, manager of the provincial air tanker program, who took part in the wildfire exercise, calls REMSAT "strategic communication." It frees up voice communication for critical information.

In addition, the REMSAT technology puts GPS systems on all firefighters, allowing the command centre leaders to digitally track and map all their fire personnel and make informed decisions.

The technology was developed in Canada through a mixture of public and private organizations with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency taking a lead role.

After the successful dry run in Whistler on Saturday, the REMSAT technology was immediately deployed to Lillooet.

"What they learned here they can use when they’re dealing with the fire in Lillooet," said Hall.

"It’s provided them with a testing ground for the use of REMSAT."

By mid-week, the B.C. Forest Service had the Lillooet wildfire 45 per cent contained by building strong fireguards around the north and south ends of the fire.

Though residents were on a one-hour evacuation alert for days and many had packed up their prized possessions, they had yet to be moved out of the town as of press time on Wednesday afternoon.

The mock fire in Whistler unfolded much differently.

The mock fire on Cougar Mountain moved at a rate of two kilometres every three minutes and was bigger than 1,000 hectares in a matter of hours.

Emerald Estates was evacuated and moved to the evacuation centre at Spring Creek School.

Whistler had declared a state of emergency by mid-morning by which point the mock fire had spread to two more spot fires, one of the Chateau Golf Course, the other on Blackcomb Mountain.

The fire also took out both B.C. Hydro lines, cutting power to the whole resort.

"We’re always figured with a double contingency we’re pretty safe," said Peter Grundy, B.C. Hydro field operations manager for Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton.

The wildfire exercise painted a worst case scenario he said but if an emergency like that ever happened, Whistler could lose all its power.

Now that B.C. Hydro is aware of the potential, Grundy said they are working on internal plans to ensure they can respond to that same situation as quickly as possible.

"It’s so evident, just going through the exercise, the benefit of doing this," said Mayor Hugh O’Reilly.

In the meantime the fire season in B.C. has begun in earnest now.

In addition to the Lillooet fire there are more than 200 blazes throughout the province.

The provincial government is bringing in firefighters from across the country to help control the situation.

Hall said B.C. is looking at another dry summer.

Provincially there are huge concerns, as well as locally he said.

Everyone needs to be cautious and take steps to make their home as fire safe as possible, like removing firewood from the side of the house, clearing brush from the floor and cutting low hanging branches.

"The biggest thing (people say) is ‘it won’t happen to me’," said Hall.

The events in Lillooet this week show it can happen anywhere, even in Whistler’s own backyard.


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