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Whistler Fire Rescue Service prepares for structural fires

WFRS coordinates with BC Wildfire Service and Blackcomb Helicopters on two-day training exercise

What would happen if the mountains around Whistler caught fire in tinder-dry conditions? What would the Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) do if an interface fire threatened buildings? How would WFRS work with other agencies to fight back against the fire?

That was the scenario presented to local firefighters during a training session held in Whistler on May 26 and 27.

The session brought together various different fire services and community partners for structural training exercises to prepare for the worst-case scenario of a massive wildfire in the resort municipality.

“The program is specifically designed to be a training program for firefighters and other community stakeholders to get a better understanding of structure protection strategies,” said Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) emergency services coordinator Ryan Donohue.

“Structure protection really comes into play when everything else has kind of not gone well.”

In all, 30 WFRS and BC Wildfire Service firefighters took part in the exercise at the base of Blackcomb Mountain’s Lot 6, with support from Blackcomb Helicopters.

Crews rapidly set about filling up a massive bladder with water from fire hydrants. However, if municipal water supplies are unavailable, this is often done with water trucks or air support.

A row of sprinklers was laid out along a defensive line, going on top of buildings with portable pumps pumping water from the bladder. As the bladder was drained out, Blackcomb Helicopters came in with a bucket full of water and filled it right back up again.

“It’s a bit of an exercise in interagency collaboration, to try and create this situational awareness for our community stakeholders, so that you know if the time comes where we have to deploy these particular strategies for structural protection, we’ll be better suited to work together and be more efficient at putting these strategies into play,” said Donohue.

While the training was viewed as a success, Donohue wants to remind people that it is a last resort, and that the public needs to do its part in the coming fire season to help fight back.

“Ideally, the No. 1 strategy to mitigate wildfire is not to have it. The second thing is to ensure that if it does happen that we’re prepared to be able to respond to it, but more importantly, our community is resilient to it,” said Donohue.

“So FireSmarting properties to ensure that they will not ignite if a wildfire comes through, having personal preparedness kits, so we’re ready to go if we have to evacuate.

“There needs to be an understanding from the public that their emergency preparedness and the more prepared they are, the more likely they’re going to be more resilient when one of these disasters strikes.”

FireSmarting is a big part of a strong community plan to fight against fires, and residents are reminded to sign up for a free FireSmart assessment on their properties.

“What we’ve learned over the past 10 years is that the FireSmarting of properties is probably the most effective approach to wildfire mitigation in terms of loss of structures. It’s also super effective in not taxing resources, like when communities become engulfed in a wildfire,” Donohue said.

“It’s very difficult for those response agencies to be able to mitigate those once those fires have started ... So preventing those structure fires by FireSmarting them and having the homeowners do the assessments and make the necessary changes to their properties to make them non-combustible, or as non-combustible as possible, has proven to be the most effective strategy for saving communities from wildfires.”

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