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A perfect firestorm

Fire officials, experts, raise the alarm for a ‘devastating’ Whistler fire
Seen from a London Air helicopter, ridges near the Soo and Rutherford rivers' conjunction show effects of mountain pine beetle on lodgepole pine, left standing dead after recent infestation.

Story and photos by Vivian Moreau

It’s the summer of 2009 in Whistler, eight months before the Winter Olympics are to begin. Almost 10,000 residents are fleeing the town as an out-of-control wildfire that began with a lightning strike north of the village rages. Sparked in lodgepole pine stands left tinder dry from a mountain pine beetle attack five years earlier, the fire has been aided by north to south 35 km-afternoon winds. Clouds of torch-like embers land on the cedar-shaked roofs of multi-million dollar houses, immediately lighting the homes that are surrounded by dense, fire-propelling second growth forests.

Fire crew numbers are down after being called away weeks earlier to fires in the Interior. The municipality’s water system, driven by electric-powered water pumps, fails when fire knocks out regional transmission towers. Both the health care centre and nearby emergency command centres located in the central and lowest part of the village have been abandoned due to zero visibility from dense smoke. As the wildfire builds on itself, creating its own wind, it has the potential to wipe out Whistler’s $3 billion worth of homes, hotels, businesses and, finally, the $130 million athletes’ village.

Sound far-fetched? Not according to local, regional and provincial fire officials and wildfire experts.

As fuels management specialist for the province’s Vancouver Island-based coastal fire centre, Brian McIntosh assesses fire risks for Whistler and other communities on Vancouver Island, in the Lower Mainland, Sechelt and Sea to Sky corridor. He says Whistler has more to lose from a wildfire than just about any other community in Canada.

“It is high given the values at risk there and then the added pressure with the 2010 Olympics coming,” McIntosh said from his Nanaimo office. “They’re not going to want a blackened area in and around the Games for the TV cameras. It certainly is a major concern area for us.”

McIntosh says the potential for a devastating fire in Whistler is tangible.

“The risk is there,” he said. “When you’ve got droughts that carry over one year to another, global warming, reduced snow packs, El Nino, mountain pine beetle — when everything lines up the risk and consequences becomes more real.”

According to two reports released last year Whistler has several wildfire strikes against it: An increasing number of high fire hazard summer days that keep the dense second growth forests overly dry. A narrow, steep-walled valley that acts like a lidded pot to hold smoke at lower elevations. Poorly designed neighbourhoods without efficient escape routes. Twenty-five hundred hectares of lodgepole pine essentially left as kindling by mountain pine beetle that swept through in the past few years. Unpredictable wind patterns that shift and pick up speed mid-afternoon. A municipal water system dependent on electrically-driven pumps that can likely only handle four or five house fires at a go. Even the types of roofing materials chosen for million-dollar homes are part of the equation for setting up the perfect firestorm.

Bruce Blackwell is the author of the two reports, Whistler’s Community Wildfire Protection Plan, commissioned two years ago by the municipality and fire rescue service, and the accompanying W ildfire Risk Management System report. He says that compared to other parts of the province Whistler’s fire risk is moderate, but the consequences of a wildfire would be devastating.

“There is potential,” he said. “I can’t predict the future but there is risk and you think about the Olympics, the consequences are pretty big consequences.”

Blackwell spent a year studying Whistler from all angles to come up with the reports that detail why Whistler is in danger from a wildfire, what can be done to prevent it, and what plans should be put in place in case a wildfire does occur.

Blackwell said that wildfires in the area he studied — almost 112,000 hectares of forest that include mountain and western hemlock, yellow and western red cedar, Douglas fir from just north of Squamish to just south of Pemberton — typically occur every 300-600 years, about the same frequency as major earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest.

But he says forest fire suppression policies over the last 50 years that regarded fires as something to be doused quickly have taken their toll on forest growth in B.C.

“Most people believe in Smokey the bear, but the reality is that it’s created a mentality that fire is bad when in fact from many perspectives fire is a good thing, and that’s where we kind of got hung.”

Blackwell says the mountain pine beetle is one example of an out-of-whack forest cycle. The beetles that burrow into the under layer of lodgepole pine bark are part of a life/fire/death cycle of the species of tree that needs fire for its tightly clustered cones to open and regenerate. But zealous fire suppression standards have allowed lodgepole pines to live well past their usual 130 years, and coupled with global warming encouraged pine beetle populations to grow to such an extent that they have laid waste to lodgepole pine through B.C.’s Interior.

Small pockets of lodgepole pine in the Whistler valley also have been attacked by mountain pine beetle in the last two years, leaving standing dead pine that morph from green to red to grey and will likely topple over within this decade in heaps, mostly on ridges near where the Soo and Rutherford rivers meet. The resulting piles of debris are potential bonfires, inaccessible and vulnerable to lightning strikes.

On average there have been 105 forest fires each decade in the Whistler area. Humans were the cause of most fires from the 1950s to 1970s but in the 1980s there was a shift with human- and lightning-caused fires equal in number. In 2006 forest fires were up 25 per cent over the 10-year average in B.C. and although 60 per cent of the 2,590 fires in the province were lightning-caused, Blackwell thinks a wildfire is more likely to be caused by humans, like from an errant backyard barbecue or camper van by the side of the highway, like one that erupted in Princeton a few summers back that ignited a 3,000-hectare fire.

In the protection plan Blackwell looked at the history of wildfires in Whistler, how wildfires start, how one could behave, how it could be dealt with and what would be the consequences.

In addition to the factors that contribute to a heady fire start — the densely packed second growth forests and quickly decomposing lodgepole pine — he concluded that blanketing smoke and changeable winds influenced by Whistler’s geography, a quirky water system and fire-friendly roofs to be prime contributors to a worst case scenario.

Whistler’s narrow steep-walled valley would trap smoke in the village and mean a large-scale evacuation, including the health care centre and nearby fire and police building, would have to be undertaken. High winds could increase the intensity and speed of a wildfire that could cover 5.5 kilometres in an hour, according to the province’s Firesmart manual.

Whistler’s gravity-fed water system is reliant on electrical pumps and would max out with just four simultaneous house fires. If the wildfire knocks out the transmission lines that run north to south the water system would be further compromised.

Whistler’s head of engineering and public works disagrees. Brian Barnett said Whistler’s water system is divided into zones with reservoirs at the top of subdivisions that are equipped to run for extended periods of time for fires and designed for the largest building in the zone and water can be transferred from one zone, like Creekside to Whistler village.

“And in the worst case scenario we also have the ability to take water out of a lake, like Green Lake, and pump it into a fire hydrant,” Barnett said. Diesel-powered generators are also available in case of power outages.

That pumping capacity would be needed, according to coastal fire centre’s McIntosh, who says cedar shake roofs would be vulnerable to brands or burning tree embers that fly in clusters and land in showers on roofs.

If 20-person fire crews normally stationed in Pemberton or Squamish are elsewhere in the province the municipality’s 23 paid and 60 volunteer members could be overwhelmed. The nearest water tankers are stationed in Abbotsford, 40 minutes away, if they’re not assigned elsewhere in the province.

Blackwell also points out Whistler’s many isolated neighbourhoods, some with only one access route, would make evacuation difficult.

“The situation could be further complicated by smoke and poor visibility, creating the necessity for traffic control in specific neighbourhoods and along Highway 99. A fire moving upslope from valley bottom along the highway would most likely substantially impede movement or make the evacuation route from areas like the Kadenwood subdivision altogether unusable,” he wrote in the protection plan.

Whistler’s fire chief agrees with Blackwell’s and others’ assessments and says it could be only a matter of time before the valley is hit by a wildfire.

“There’s no question that the potential for a major fire is here,” said Bruce Hall. “We haven’t had a major fire of any magnitude in the valley in a long time and really if you start calculating the odds of when we get them, Don is right.”

Don is retired registered professional forester Don MacLaurin, who first came to B.C from the Maritimes as a forestry student in 1951. A Whistler homeowner since 1962 and resident for the past 20 years, MacLaurin says all the wrong conditions at the right time could create a perfect firestorm in Whistler.

MacLaurin is also worried about beetle-killed stands of lodgepole pine near the Soo and Rutherford river conjunction. If a fire starts there and with the right winds “embers could flow right into Whistler,” he said.

“We’re not the Interior, we’re not the place that has periodic fires every five years. But we are a place that every 200 years you have a major conflagration that can just wipe out everything. That’s our problem, people don’t know that.”

Local forest ecologist Bob Brett adds to the discussion. Brett has studied historical Whistler fires and found that most forest stands at lower elevations originated before 1700 and were not struck by a solitary wildfire.

“What seems quite clear is they didn’t originate from the same fire but probably a series of fires over that century,” he said. Brett doesn’t believe that just because there hasn’t been a major forest fire in Whistler in hundreds of years another is around the corner.

“Just because we haven’t had a big one for a long time, doesn’t mean we’re more predisposed to having a fire now,” he said. “But if it does happen consequences would be great. Everyone agrees that second-growth forests that intertwine Whistler’s subdivisions are over dense and a fire hazard.”

But preventive steps can be taken by homeowners and the municipality to decrease the impact of a wildfire. Trimming trees so they don’t touch houses, removing branches from the bottom two metres of trees, clearing away underbrush and switching from shake to metal roofs, if possible, are just some measures.

The municipality undertook major thinning in Lost Lake Park last year and this fall, clearing underbrush and taking down trees five metres either side of trails. Designed to open dense second growth so that if a fire were to start it would travel the slower ground route rather than shoot up to tree crowns where it could travel more quickly, clearing the trails on either side could also serve as a firebreak in the event of a large wildfire, potentially halting the spread to nearby homes. The municipality also changed building bylaws in the past year to make fire retardant roofing materials mandatory for new construction.

Chief Hall is hoping the municipality will finance further wildfire prevention projects other than the $20,000 Lost Lake thinning that was funded with assistance from the Union of B.C. Municipalities. Last year he asked for $100,000 to begin implementing Whistler’s wildfire protection plan but was turned down.

In Whistler’s wildfire protection plan, Blackwell made 23 recommendations, everything from posting fire hazard information in public spaces to larger setbacks between homes and forests to implementing a tree thinning program — and in what seems almost a resignation — to developing contingency plans for evacuating Whistler Village.

“The scenarios in here (the protection plan) are to the best of our ability,” Blackwell said, “but if something changed (for the worse) it’s hard to say what could happen.”

Coastal fire centre’s McIntosh adds to Blackwell’s cautions.

“It becomes an emotional thing,” he said. “People like the trees up against their deck but the reality is unless you’re willing to do something else with construction materials on your home having those trees adjacent to your house is certainly putting your home at risk.”

Blackwell’s colleague Bob Brett lives below Base II on Blackcomb, an area surrounded by trees. Brett said there’s a duality to living embedded in a forest.

“I worry about losing our home,” he said, “but I’m not worried about losing our lives. I’m willing to accept some risk to keep natural forests intact.”


Preventive measures

B.C.’s Forest Service’s Firesmart Manual offers some tips for keeping homes safe from wildfires:

• Homeowners should remove shrubs and trees within 10 metres of a house. That’s not likely to happen in Whistler but it is important to trim trees so branches are not touching a house and move that woodpile away from the side of the house.

• Remove bottom two metres of branches from trees so if a ground fire does come through it can’t ladder up the tree from branch to branch.

• If you have an older roof that needs to be replaced do it with metal, clay or asphalt shingles. Wood shakes provide no fire protection, the Firesmart manual bluntly states.

• Keep areas under decks and porches clear of debris.

• Post this number on your fridge in order to report a wildfire:

1-800-663-5555 or *5555 on your cell.