Outgoing fire chief concerned about impact of growing resort business 

Could fire department access RMI funds to deal with increasing calls?

click to enlarge PHOTO BY MIKE CRANE - years of service Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood makes the difficult decision to retire from the Whistler Fire Rescue Service after almost 30 years.
  • photo by mike crane
  • years of service Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood makes the difficult decision to retire from the Whistler Fire Rescue Service after almost 30 years.

While the threat of a wildfire looms ever large in Whistler, it's really the day-to-day busyness in a booming resort that has outgoing Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood most concerned for the coming years.

On the eve of her retirement, as she sets her sights to more moderate climes on the Gulf Islands and living off the grid, Kirkwood spoke about her concerns for the service, in which she has spent almost three decades.

As the resort has hit record summer room nights in recent years and witnessed increasingly busy shoulder seasons, pressure to meet growing demands is evident throughout Whistler. Just look to the $175,000 increase in the municipal budget this year to deal with increased village maintenance services. This demand is true too at the fire department, whose $3.7-million budget is funded entirely by local taxpayers.

"I look at the growth in the call volumes, the complexity of some of the calls that we're doing (and) a lot of that is directly related to the success of Whistler in terms of an increase in tourist numbers," Kirkwood said.

Perhaps, Kirkwood suggested, the service could access funding through the provincial Resort Municipalities Initiative (RMI) monies — about $7 million that is transferred from the province to Whistler each year to support tourism initiatives — that could be put to use at the fire department for things like swift-water training.

Firefighters will be doing a swift-water training exercise next month, for example, in order to offer swift-water rescue services this summer.

"That's a direct response to increased activity on the waterways," said the fire chief.

"What role does the province play (in funding things like that) and is there an opportunity for access to the RMI funds to fund some of these things?"

Kirkwood announced her retirement last week after less than two years in the top job in Whistler.

It was not an easy decision.

But she had come to a crossroads. In the end, after much debate, she decided to put her health first.

"It's not the kind of job you can do in half measures," she said.

Though on call every second week, ultimately the buck always stops with the fire chief.

"You've always got that uniform on, you're never really not on duty," said Kirkwood. "It's hard to separate that."

With land in the Gulf Islands, Kirkwood looks to a simpler life, exploring all the possibilities of living off-grid.

"It's going to be really fun putting that into practice," she said.

"So as sad as I will be to leave Whistler, I'm not a mountain girl by heart, I didn't move here for the skiing, I moved up here in the summer for a job, and that pull to get back to the ocean is pretty strong."

Kirkwood came to Whistler in 1985 when she was 19 years old to work in the new Whistler Conference Centre as part of the catering team.

One year later she tried out as a volunteer firefighter and was the first woman hired on as a career firefighter a few years later.

Being the only woman never really factored much into the equation.

"It was always very open," said Kirkwood, speaking not only of the fire service, but also throughout Whistler where women have long made their mark on ski patrol, in business and in construction.

"There was always really strong female leadership."

She rose through the ranks at the Whistler Fire Rescue Service, carving out a career, which really just fell into her lap. She was promoted to Assistant Fire Chief in 1998 and became the chief in November 2013.

"What an opportunity to have grown with the community through the fire department," she said. "It's hard to step away from that."

When she thinks back on her toughest call, the fire in Spruce Grove last August comes to mind.

That fire affected four homes in the close subdivision, but it was contained, as Whistler called on mutual aid from Garibaldi and Pemberton fire departments.

"It had such potential to be one of those events where you're not thinking just in terms of putting out a house fire," she recalled. "We were thinking 'My God, what if this went to the subdivision and the forest?'"

Kirkwood has been instrumental in leading work on several significant community wildfire-prevention projects. Just this past weekend, for example, work was underway above Millar's Pond and Spring Creek subdivisions on a 14.7-hectare area of land. The "fuel thinning" involved removal of ground brush and debris, as well as trimming branches to reduce the risk of wildfire. The debris was burned.

As she prepares to leave her post on Sept. 1, Kirkwood will be handing off the recently completed Whistler Fire Services review — a comprehensive look at the fire department.

The review includes an analysis of how and why fire services are currently being delivered, and costs for providing existing services, as well as a comparison of costs and resources to benchmark groups, including an analysis of core services, optional services and services not currently provided. It will be coming to council for consideration in the coming weeks.

Kirkwood, however, will be leaving any potential changes up to her successor as she hits the open water.

"I kind of like the idea of unplugging a little bit, and really dialing down the consumerism side of life," she said. "So I plan on getting out my kayak and a fishing rod and kicking back a little.

"As much as I have been proud of the uniform that I wear, I'm also looking forward to taking that off, not being defined by that."


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