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WB buildings destroyed in blaze

No effect on opening day preparations, Harmony and Crystal projects
A firefighter works to contain a fire at Whistler Blackcomb's Base II operations facility after midnight on Tuesday. David Buzzard, David Buzzard Photography

Four Whistler Blackcomb buildings at Base II on Blackcomb Mountain were completely destroyed in a fire that started before midnight on Sept. 16.

According to Whistler Fire Chief Rob Whitton the fire was so advanced by the time they arrived on scene that crews went into a defensive mode where the priority was to contain the fire and prevent it from spreading to other buildings.

"At the point of arrival it looked like three buildings were involved and the fourth was being impinged upon," he said. "I believe we're looking at five damaged vehicles, and crews that arrived on scene moved another eight to 10 vehicles away from the buildings so they weren't damaged by fire — either gaining access by opening the door or breaking the driver's side windows and putting the vehicles in neutral and pushing them out of the way."

The cause of the fire is still under investigation, but it not believed to have been deliberately set at this point. Whitton said the fire likely spread quickly, and multicolour flames and explosions indicated that there were chemicals substances stored on site.

"There were definitely hazardous materials on site, paints and other things — we're not sure what'son the list, but we were getting some pretty odd-coloured flames, deep purple to a brilliant blue, which are indicators that there were chemicals there...

"The materials used in the buildings themselves, the paint shop and chemical storage area, and the wood shop as well, all those things lend themselves to a fairly rapid building fire when there is plenty of oxygen available."

The firefighters, who were wearing respirators, also heard several explosions as compressed air tanks blew, as well as smaller spray cans and possibly small propane cans as well. None of the buildings were connected to natural gas or propane lines.

The fire was considered in control by around 4:15 a.m., when a Whistler Blackcomb excavator was used to knock open the walls and allow crews to spray water inside.

Firefighters from all three halls, some 32 firefighters in total, worked through the night to contain the blaze and keep it from spreading. Crews also remained onsite through the morning to deal with hotspots, and other excavators were sent in to level the buildings. Whitton said the site will end up being a "clean slate" given the extent of the damage.

According to Whistler Blackcomb, security personnel called the fire in after attending an alarm in the area. Whitton noted that the buildings did not have any fire detection on site, something that might have allowed crews to respond sooner and limit the damage.

The buildings contained Whistler Blackcomb's mountain operations offices, the sign shop, the building maintenance workshop, the reservations call centre and pass administration working areas.

No one was in the buildings at the time and there are no injuries reported. The total cost of the damage is unknown.

While it was the most serious fire reported in the resort in several years, Whitton said it could have been worse without the recent rain.

"There were probably half a dozen trees behind the property that have seen better days and probably won't survive," he said. "If this fire happened a month earlier it would have been a different situation as far as interface (forest) involvement. Because of the rain and cooler temperatures we've experienced we didn't have any other issues."

Firefighters also had issues with water pressure, given the number of hoses in use and the size of the blaze.

The fire call also came in after a busy day for some members of the Whistler Fire Rescue. Earlier in the afternoon firefighters attended an injured hiker on a bike trail south of Whistler, using the single wheel to bring the individual to the highway and a waiting ambulance.

Whistler Blackcomb said the fire will not impact opening day preparations, or the ongoing work on the Harmony 6 or Crystal Ridge chairlift projects. The company was already working on plans to replace the ruined facilities by this morning, and was working to find space for displaced staff in other buildings.

According to the release, "With winter season preparations well underway the main priority will be to relocate affected Whistler Blackcomb employees and ensure they have the tools to do their jobs as the mountains gear up for their official opening day of November 28, 2013."

Arthur DeJong, manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler Blackcomb, said crews were already back at work on the Harmony and Crystal chairs this morning, but called it a "tough day" for staffers.

"I watched my office, which had over 30 years of reports and materials and artifacts of memory get destroyed, which was quite an experiencee," he said. "But I'm very complimentary of Fire Chief Rob Whitton and the whole team. They were phenomenal and professional and as tight with their protocols as they need to be.

"Operationally, we're going to be fine, we're already back on our feet... nobody is hurt."

It's going to be a slow day in realigning the resources we need and finding places for our staff, and a lot of staff have lost personal items as well so it's a tough day for them."