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Planning wildfire mitigation in Whistler

Total of 57 hectares prescribed for treatment before 2021
fuel for the flames Environmental stewardship manager Heather Beresford presents to Whistler's committee of the whole on Sept. 17. Photo by braden dupuis

While Whistler's wildfire anxiety may be dampened somewhat after a wet summer, officials aren't assigning any less urgency to protecting the valley.

"The modelling that we've done for the Community Energy and Climate Action Plan clearly shows that the long-term trend is for longer, hotter, drier summers, and so I am going to pay attention to that," said Heather Beresford, environmental stewardship manager for the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW).

"We'll see this unpredictability, but I think overall we can not let our foot off the gas."

Beresford was on hand for the Sept. 17 committee of the whole meeting to provide an update on the RMOW's wildfire mitigation program.

The program plots out the next eight to 10 years of wildfire management in the valley (informed by a new 10-year strategy from consultant Bruce Blackwell), and focuses on three components: fuel reduction projects, policy and process improvements and public education and support for the FireSmart program.

High-priority areas targeted for fuel thinning in the next three years include around Whistler Secondary School, around Spruce Grove, Nesters Hill, Taluswood and on the backside of the Cheakamus Crossing neighbourhood.

A total of 57 hectares are under prescription for treatment from 2019 to 2021. But there are still some "gaps" in the priority areas that could be treated, Beresford said.

"Where we still are a bit challenged are on some of the large forested private properties, for example, around Emerald Estates—we can only do work on Crown land, so we have to find ways to work with those large property owners," she said.

Another gap is on Whistler Blackcomb's Controlled Recreation Area, where Blackwell has identified several locations to be treated on the east side of the valley.

"Blackwell's opinion ... is that more work could be done on the mountain, so we'll have to continue those conversations [with Whistler Blackcomb]," Beresford said. "They've been really supportive of the work we've been doing."

Since 2009, a total of 150 hectares have been treated, at a total project cost of $3.27 million ($2 million of which was paid for by the province, with $1.2 million being paid by the RMOW).

"So as a general statement, for every $3 a project costs, we've received $2 of provincial funding, which has been a massive help," Beresford said.

But with the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) changing its model for wildfire funding last year—from a focus on funding Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) projects to funding FireSmart initiatives—the RMOW's portion of fuel treatment costs is set to increase.

Under the new funding model, municipalities can apply for up to $150,000 this year (down from $400,000 in previous years) through UBCM.

The RMOW has budgeted $500,000 a year for fuel thinning work on the priority areas identified, as well as $250,000 a year for landscape-level fuel breaks (which would be supplemented by provincial Forest Enhancement Society of BC funding).

"It seems that these programs change fairly regularly," Beresford said of the UBCM funding, noting that she hopes it won't be a permanent situation.

The province is still committing money to wildfire mitigation through the Forest Enhancement Society of BC and the Community Resiliency Investment Program, she added.

While fuel-thinning work creates defensible spaces for crews to fight fires, the work needs to be done "hand in hand" with FireSmart efforts, Beresford said.

"Where I think we really need to be focusing our efforts in the next few years is to work with our private homeowners," she said, noting that the community is on board after some smoke-filled summers, but FireSmarting goes beyond removing trees from your property.

"It's just as important to be considering what the roofing is, what the building material is, where's your wood pile ... we have to be thinking about those burning brands that are floating in, and what are the likely ignition points on your property," Beresford said.

With the sizable annual investment, it's important that the RMOW understand how much of an impact it is making each year, said Councillor Arthur De Jong after the presentation. "In the last 30 or 40 years, temperatures in the summer have gone up over two degrees here," De Jong said.

"So there is no hazard that even comes close to this hazard we're trying to tackle here in terms of catastrophic events."

Whistler discussed wildfire mitigation funding with the province during last month's UBCM convention (see related story on page 22).

The feedback from UBCM and BC Wildfire is that "there's a perception that the coast is low risk, and it is—lower risk compared to the Okanagan or up north," Beresford said.

That being said, things are changing. "We [saw] the Elaho fire [in 2015] behave in a way that was completely unexpected ... travelling 20-plus kilometres overnight. Nobody expected that," Beresford said.

"And of course, the consequence, if we have a fire here, is so significant to the provincial economy that I think we could use some more support from the province."