Crystal Ridge fire smaller than anticipated 

Ground crews attacking 'creeping ground fire' that remains uncontained

Thirty-four firefighters are attacking what is now called a creeping ground fire on the east side of Blackcomb's Crystal Ridge.

Aerial and satellite surveys of the fire this morning show the blaze is about 30 ha in size, smaller than the Thursday evening estimate of 75 ha.

"It's smaller than anticipated," said Phil Taudin-Chabot, manager of the Coastal Fire Centre at a morning media briefing. "It's sometimes very difficult when we get smoke drifting through trees to pin down fire size."

Whistler Mountain is open for sightseeing, mountain biking and some restricted hiking today. The Peak 2 Peak gondola is also operating.

The sky is hazy from smoke, which can be smelled throughout the Whistler valley. The fire is not yet contained but rain Thursday evening helped helicopters and water tankers that were fighting the blaze.

Today ground crews are laying hose and constructing hand fire guards. Four danger tree fallers will be onsite to support the ground crews. Aerial crews will also be available as required throughout the day.

Water is being brought in to douse the fire from a small lake nearby.

The fire is within Blackcomb's ski area boundary but there have been no reports of damage to the Crystal chairlift or any other Whistler Blackcomb infrastructure.

First reports of the fire came in at about 2:45 Thursday afternoon after a lightning strike. Whistler Blackcomb had already evacuated all visitors on the two mountains by 2:30 p.m.

"We saw the lightning coming at about 1 p.m. and we stopped selling tickets and started moving people off the mountain," said Doug Forseth, senior vice president of operations for Whistler Blackcomb.

Forseth estimated there were about 300 people on Whistler Mountain at the time, and between 50 and 75 people on Blackcomb.

Whistler Blackcomb monitors lightning storms when they get within 100 km of the area. Some people were evacuated from the mountain last weekend when another electrical storm came through the valley.

More lightning is forecast for today.

Evacuation efforts on Thursday included people touring the Whistler Sliding Centre near Base II on Blackcomb. Anne Porritt was one of them. A visitor from Detroit, she and her husband were touring the sliding centre when the call came to get off the mountain.

"All of a sudden this guy pulls up in a pickup truck, he slams on his breaks and comes running over to where we were and says 'I'm sorry guys, I don't know where you are in your tour but we're evacuating the entire mountain and you guys have to leave right now,'" she said.

Porritt had just gotten to Whistler on Wednesday and extended her visit before the forest fire began. She didn't expect anything like the fire to happen but she said it made her trip a lot more exciting.

Residents living in Whistler Blackcomb staff housing at Base II on Blackcomb were also evacuated Thursday. They were allowed to return to the buildings by 6 p.m.

Meanwhile, a fire in the Callaghan Valley has closed all trails and the disk golf course. The area is open to the public, but people will be required to stay on the paved roads and parking lots. The weekend guided tours of the ski jump and biathlon facilities are continuing. There is a complete ban on smoking anywhere on site.

The Crystal Ridge fire comes as crews with the Ministry of Forests are battling 26 new fires within the Pemberton area alone - and those just started within the last 24 hours. That doesn't include the fires already burning at Copper Mountain and the Camel's Back in Pemberton that have blanketed the valley in a haze.

When asked whether fire crews are stretched thin, Taudin-Chabot admitted they're having challenges.

An Emergency Operations Centre has been set up in Whistler.

The next press conference is scheduled for 4 p.m.

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