Life in the wildland-urban interface 

Forest fire hazard declines but danger remains

Homes in each of Whistler’s neighbourhoods are comfortably tucked into the surrounding forest. From Bayshores to Emerald Estates, million-dollar houses are surrounded by hemlock, cedar and fir trees. Ski runs cut into the mountainside fall from peak to valley.

And while this might seem like a tranquil setting, it could potentially be a dangerous one as well.

The majority of buildings in Whistler, as well as on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, are located in what forest fire experts call the wildland-urban interface.

"There used to be forest fires in this area every 100 years or so, and they were quite fierce," says local forestry consultant Don MacLaurin. "But the natural disturbance regime has been interrupted."

Fires have been suppressed in the area for such a long period, he says, that local forests have become loaded with fuel – dead trees and shrubby undergrowth.

"Most people don’t realize it but there’s a high potential for a forest fire here," adds Whistler fire chief Bruce Hall.

MacLaurin, Hall and the B.C. Forest Service are currently working together to assess what can be done to reduce the danger of a forest fire in the Whistler area.

"We’re looking at all aspects of wildland-urban interface fires, including risk, control and education" says Hall.

According to Hall, the committee is meeting regularly and should have an action plan ready by next spring. There is also a major interface-fire conference scheduled for next March in Penticton, which Hall says he’ll most likely be attending.

Wildland-urban interface fires are the most dangerous and costly because they threaten lives and property.

A recent forest fire near the resort town of Jackson, Wyo., cost $14-million US to quell.

The fire forced 150 people from their homes and, at its peak, the 1,800-hectare blaze was battled by 1,400 firefighters, 16 airplanes, 12 helicopters and 70 fire engines.

The blaze, located in a popular national forest and recreation area, was started by a campfire July 22 and was not contained until Aug. 2.

Closer to home, interface fires in the B.C. Interior have demonstrated just how destructive, and how out of control, wildfires can become in a relatively short period.

In 1994, a fire near Penticton burned 5,500 hectares and led to the evacuation of 3,500 people. Eighteen homes in a canyon on the east side of Skaha Lake were lost.

In 1998, a fire near Salmon Arm torched more than 6,000 hectares, caused the evacuation of 7,000 people, destroyed more than 40 buildings and cost more than $10 million to extinguish. It is the most destructive fire in B.C. history.

Large forest fires this summer near Princeton and in the East Kootenay have not threatened lives or property and finally seem to be under control.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler has imposed two separate camp- and open-fire bans this summer during periods of high hazard. The most recent ban was last week, before rain bumped the hazard rating back down to moderate.

"The forest floor really needs a good soaking," says Hall. "The duff layer is really dry."

According to Hall, the municipality and Whistler-Blackcomb are doing all they can to be prepared for a forest fire within its boundaries and municipal firemen are trained by the forest service in current firefighting techniques.

"We have a good rapport with the forest service," he says.

The forest service is also using some cutting-edge practices to dampen the threat of a major forest fire in the region.

According to Squamish Forest District manager Paul Kuster, prescribed burns – controlled fires set on purpose – and selective logging practices are being used in the D’Arcy-Devine area to reduce the danger.

"Managing fire is part of managing the ecosystem," he says.

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