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Whistler has a ‘long way to go’ on wildfire resiliency, but progress being made

Council hears update on 2023 Community Wildfire Resiliency Plan
Whistler's mayor and council hear a presentation at the Dec. 5 Committee of the Whole meeting.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is making progress in implementing the 32 recommendations outlined in the Community Wildfire Resiliency Program (CWRP), according to a report by staff to the Dec. 5 Committee of the Whole (COW).

The CWRP, which was updated in 2022, identifies issues and suggests solutions to make the community safer in the face of “an ever-increasing threat of wildfire,” according to the CWRP itself.

According to the staff report put before the COW, the RMOW has made progress in education, legislation and community planning, interagency cooperation, training (of staff and between agencies and stakeholders), emergency planning, and vegetation management—all of which are six recommended areas of focus of the CWRP.

In her presentation to the COW, the RMOW’s manager of climate and environment, Luisa Burhenne, gave some comments on why the work is so important.

“We in Whistler are surrounded by forest, and many of the areas (of forest) have been clearcut in the ’60s and ’80s. The forest hasn’t really been well managed in its regrowth, so we have very dense, young forest, with a lot of dead trees in between, and underbrush,” she said.

“We also know that climate change is happening, which leads to longer, hotter, dryer summers. These longer drought periods and higher temperatures combined with those dry, dead forests really increase the risk and severity of wildfires here in Whistler.”

Burhenne said that, while these are established facts and information she herself has conveyed at meetings past, “what’s new this year is we had an incredibly impactful and devastating wildfire season (in 2023), and that made us realize how unpredictable the effects of climate change really are.”

Burhenne gave the examples of the Kelowna wildfire earlier this year, which jumped the Okanagan Lake, and the Downton fire closer to home, where a “fire tornado” formed due to the conditions.

“We have to accept now that climate change will bring these unpredictable events that we somehow need to prepare for,” she said.


Dividing the update on the program into the six key strategies, staff touched on progress across them all.

In education, the RMOW’s manager of protective services, Lindsay DeBou, said the municipality is leaning into a communications plan to educate residents on the important role they play in fire safety.

“We focus a lot on educating homeowners—homeowners are really important to our whole program, because on an individual basis, people can make a huge difference,” she said.

“We try to have a communications plan that brings in the homeowners to be motivated to be part of our program.”

DeBou said 82 homeowners did a home partners assessment in 2023, which she said was a “pretty phenomenal” number due to the amount of work that went into the program. She added the RMOW assessed eight neighbourhoods for fire safety, and there were 28 FireSmart work days (which bring together stratas to make areas safer), while 237 properties were serviced by the RMOW’s wood chipper. DeBou also said that, through the FireSmart program, 900,000 metric tonnes of fuel has been cleared from municipal forested areas in four years.

The RMOW’s fire chief, Thomas Doherty, shared an update on various levels of training being done with the fire department, and talked about the importance of planning.

“This wildfire defense plan is the largest defense plan done in the province of B.C. to date, according to our BC Wildfire specialist that we’re working with on this. What they do is they go into each of the neighbourhoods, and they assess everything in the neighbourhoods from access, egress routes, water fill sites, safety zones for responders, and all the critical infrastructure … all of this information is compiled into tactical sheets, and these tactical sheets are then made available to responders that may come to Whistler,” he said, noting that if there was a large fire event in the area, fire resources (and personnel) would be drawn in from across the province.

“When they arrive, they will have this information made available to them through these sheets … What we’ve done is we’ve taken a proactive approach. In most municipalities, this work is done at the time of a wildfire encroaching upon it.”

Doherty also talked of the resources within the community not directly under the control of the fire department, noting Whistler Blackcomb’s fire-fighting teams, fire hydrants used for snow making, and staff within the RMOW itself that have training applicable to fire safety.


Burhenne talked a lot about the importance of vegetation management, noting the strategy has two goals in reducing the fire risk posed to and by the forest itself, and also maintaining the health of the natural environment.

“We’re really trying to find a way to achieve both at the same time,” she said.

Burhenne added the FireSmart team finalized a three-year strategic plan this year that identified areas in need of vegetation management treatment: In 2023, there were 90 hectares of land treated out of 355 hectares identified, with the areas done in 2023 being the Kadenwood Gondola, Riverside, and the Rainbow area. Areas identified for 2024 are Emerald West, Brio, and along Highway 99, which Burhenne noted will be a multi-year component.

Fuel thinning was carried out to make the forest more resilient to fires by reducing undergrowth and removing dead trees. Burhenne explained that with a young, dense forest, the natural areas around Whistler are at high risk of burning completely, and do not present ideal habitat for wildlife due to a lack of sunlight getting through to the forest floor. Thinning the forest and clearing undergrowth could improve forest health and resiliency, she posited.

“This type of forest has more capability to grow into those very resilient old-growth forests that we’d like to see here,” she said.

In conclusion, Burhenne stressed that when it comes to the future, “wildfires are the highest climate change-related risk and vulnerability for us here in Whistler, and we really need to do everything that we can to mitigate that risk.”

The RMOW’s focus for 2024 will be high-priority risk area mitigation, the wildfire defense plan, and the ongoing FireSmart program, which focuses on mitigating risk on private properties.

In comments following the presentation, Councillor Jen Ford noted that more information out in the public is better for understanding, because thinning of forested areas is a process that is “not well understood” in regards to benefits.

Coun. Arthur De Jong asked Doherty what is being learned through the process on assessing community safety and individual neighbourhoods in Whistler, to which Doherty said outside insight from experts that have witnessed fires all across B.C. is that Whistler has a long way to go.

“They were shocked at what we have to deal with here,” he said.

“We have a lot of work to do, and it's going to be a huge challenge for us, but through the process we learned a lot, even throughout our own organization.”

The full presentation, along with questions and answers from council can be found on the RMOW website.