Small fires break out on Blackcomb after lightning strikes 

Another 10 fires expected to start in Whistler-Pemberton area over next 48 hours

Smoke billowed thick Saturday evening as fire crews worked hard to contain 19 forest fires that ignited between Whistler and Pemberton following a later afternoon lightning storm.

Four of the blazes were on Blackcomb Mountain, the closest one burning just a kilometre from Whistler Village.

The Blackcomb fires broke out between 4:45 p.m. and 5:45 p.m, as torrential rain poured and the sky was streaked with lightening flashes. Chunks of hail also fell at one point.

Doug Forseth, senior vice president of operations for Whistler Blackcomb, said the flames sprung up on trees near Tower 5 of Solar Coaster as well as on two trees near the top of Racer Alley off Easy Out.

Another two fires smoldered above Painted Cliff Road on the Benchlands, although neither broke out into flames.

Fire Services teamed up with Whistler Blackcomb to battle the blazes on Blackcomb, while other crews worked on the other fires throughout the corridor.

"We had attack crews ready to go," said Mike McCulley, fire information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre. "Our goal is to always hit hard, hit fast and contain the fires as much as possible in the early stages."

The flare-ups were spot fires, with the largest one between Whistler and Pemberton burning at 0.3 hectares. Most were 0.1 hectares in size. No people, infrastructure or houses were burned.

As the storm rolled in and the lightning began crews on Whistler Blackcomb also made sure everyone on the mountain was safe.

Forseth said when the storm was 100 kilometres away Whistler Blackcomb crews started to calculate when to stop loading people onto the mountain and start encouraging people to download.

"When it got closer, we actually stopped people from loading the lifts because they are a bit of a magnet for lightening," said Forseth.

The other 15 fires that burned throughout the Whistler-Pemberton corridor where spread throughout the upper valley, said McCulley.

One of those fires was reported on Sproat Mountain.

Carmine D'Ascanio, who works as a front desk manager for Four Seasons Resort Whistler, said that around the time the thunderstorm started he saw a small patch of flames on Sproat.

"We were on the front drive and saw them," said D'Ascanio. "It looked like it was one patch, and it wasn't spreading. As the clouds came over and it rained, it just went out."

By the end of the day on Saturday fire crews and helicopters with buckets had managed to stifle the fires on Blackcomb and contained the other ones burning throughout the area.

Whistler Blackcomb also enlisted a faller to take down three trees that went up in flames to make sure the fires were totally extinguished, said Forseth.

But the work isn't over for the fire crews.

About 10 fires are expected to ignite over the next 48 hours, said McCulley.

"Lightning strikes can hold to the trees and ground and not actually start a fire for hours, days and weeks. That is called hold over lightning," said McCulley. "We have seen hold over lightning as late as 30 days after the initial storm."

Forseth added that Whistler Blackcomb is doing an air patrol of the mountains every evening to make sure no new fires have started.

"We have been doing that for years now," said Forseth. "It is way too important for us not to manage it as best as we can. We use every resource we can think of."

Last year a wildfire burned on Blackcomb Mountain for five days before crews got it under control. The fire was started by a lightning strike in the Crystal Ridge area.

Whistler's fire hazard rating has been at Extreme for almost two weeks. Campfires and open flames are prohibited.

McCulley is asking the public to report any fires or smoke to the Coastal Fire Centre.

"We really depend on the public to help us find fires and when they call our wildlife number that is a big part of our initial attack strategy," he said. "The faster we can learn about smoke and fire, the better luck we have to keep it under control."

The Coast Fire Centre can be reached at 1-800-663-5555.

 

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