Are you ready to evacuate? 

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo

For many in these days of climate change impacts, the question of a wildfire sweeping into the Whistler valley is not one of "if" but "when."

Over recent summers, we have all suffered through air heavy with smoke, our windows tightly shut against the pollution, our memories of clear skies and lakeside dips and sunbathing just that—memories.

Last summer, many began to wonder if this was the new reality, and if it was, what it means for tourism, for our health and our long-term plans to live here.

We know from recent research that inhaling smoke from a wildfire can be equal to smoking a couple of packs of cigarettes a day, depending on its thickness.

While smoke from wildfire does not seem to have overly affected tourism in 2017 and 2018, there is little doubt that repetition of smoky skies will put visitors off coming here.

Speaking on a provincial level, Jeremy Stone—a consultant and academic who works on issues concerning economic resilience to natural disaster—said that there is a risk of brand damage when you have significant natural disasters over multiple years.

Regions that are most affected should look to promote shoulder and off-seasons in the same manner that Whistler successfully has, said Stone.

Moreover, he added, the issue underlines the need for municipalities and regions to invest in economic resilience planning.

"Most disaster planning is just around emergency planning," he said. "There's not a lot of planning on what happens in times of economic disruption."

Whistler, as we know, is a FireSmart community and has budgeted to clear forested areas to help make the resort safer (see story on page 19).

The province could do more, and should do more, considering Whistler currently welcomes over 3 million people per year, generates $1.5-million in annual provincial GDP and contributes approximately 25 per cent of B.C.'s total tourism export revenue.

Those figures alone make a compelling argument for action on a swift and large scale to save the resort in a wildfire event.

But what if ... what if that wildfire is raging towards us?

This week, the Resort Municipality of Whistler is starting the conversation around what that would look like. How would neighbourhoods evacuate? What would visitors do? How would those without transportation get out of town? How would the health care centre be evacuated?

We began to hear about the plan, which was done jointly with the District of Squamish, last summer. The $125,000 cost of the plan was shared between the two local governments who are also in discussions with other regional bodies, Pemberton and local First Nations so that everyone is on the same page if the worst happened.

We know that plans are in place for a high-functioning emergency-operations centre with the hope that response and actions are coordinated, controlled and appropriate.

We know that local media, including Pique, will be part of the effort to keep everyone in Whistler informed so that we don't panic.

We also know that evacuating Whistler is not something we can all just sit back and wait for someone else to fully organize. Each one of us needs to have a plan so that when the emergency officials tell us it's our turn to head to the highway and get out of town, we are ready.

Keep your gas tank at least half full, talk to your employer about what their plans are in case of evacuation, talk to the organizations looking after your kids to find out how they plan to notify you on where and when to pick up your children.

You need to consider how to manage your pets—do you have proper travelling cases for them? And food and water organized as well? You also need to plan your own sustenance during an evacuation. Have you got your prescriptions organized?

What can be done at your residence to mitigate wildfire damage? With national Emergency Preparedness Week running May 5 to 11, it's a good time to make your own plan and encourage others to do so as well.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is holding an emergency planning committee meeting on May 2, which is open to the public, with the full plan coming to council later this month.

But don't wait for the RMOW plan.

Get your kit together and be ready to go, then relax and get ready for another amazing summer in Whistler.

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