Whistler gets ready for wildfire emergency 

Planning exercise in June will involve government agencies, corporations, local services

Whistler’s response to a wildfire emergency will be put to the test in June, just as a long dry summer gets underway.

On Saturday, June 19 Whistler Fire Rescue Service, the RMOW, Emergency Social Services, the RCMP and others, will kick their emergency plans into high gear during a full-scale emergency planning exercise.

"It’ll exercise all the sections of our emergency planning functions within the municipality," said Fire Chief Bruce Hall.

"And it focuses in on what I consider to be the number one hazard to the municipality, which is a wildfire event."

It’s called the Wildfire Emergency Planning Exercise and Hall outlined the basic concept of the exercise at the last council meeting.

He could not divulge the scope of the exercise itself other than to say that on June 19 th Whistler will seem as though it’s right in the middle of a full-scale wildfire emergency.

During the event the RMOW will employ the Municipal Emergency Plan. As such, the Emergency Operations Centre will come together along with the Emergency Social Services, Search and Rescue, Fire Rescue Service and the RCMP.

"When you’re in an emergency situation you don’t have time to strategize... so this is where you go into implementing your plan," said Diana Waltmann, information officer with the municipality.

The point of the exercise she said is to go through the plan and refine it to make sure everything is in place as the summer season begins and forest fires become a major concern.

"It’s particularly important for Whistler, for our reputation in the international marketplace," added Waltmann.

The exercise will be done in conjunction with the B.C. Forest Service, who will be testing out cutting-edge firefighting technology.

It’s called REMSAT (Real-Time Emergency Management via Satellite).

This technology was developed by the European Space Agency and was last tested in Squamish four years ago.

REMSAT can tell where a wildfire might be heading, as opposed to infrared technology which can determine how quickly a fire is growing but not where it’s going.

Hall saw the infrared technology in action last summer when he was in the thick of the wildfire crisis in the Interior.

"When I was in Kamloops we were getting an infrared style map of the fire but it was where the fire had been at the moment," said Hall.

"It didn’t project the fire’s growth."

During Whistler’s emergency exercise a portable REMSAT unit will be flown from Whistler to Vernon. As the Whistler emergency unfolds, a similar emergency will begin at Silver Star.

This will allow the B.C. Forest Service to test the capabilities of the system as it handles two events at the same time.

Ironically, said Hall, this event was planned before last summer’s wildfires devastated parts of B.C.’s Interior.

Last spring, B.C. Forest Service approached Whistler with the concept of holding the planning exercise.

Chilko Lake will also hold a similar event, two weeks before the Whistler wildfire exercise.

Chilko Lake was the site of the second largest forest fire in B.C. last year.

As such, the Forest Service can compare what the REMSAT technology tells them in 2004, against what actually happened the year before.

"(The Forest Service will) see whether REMSAT would make a difference in their ability to deal with a wildfire when they’ve actually had the real thing," said Hall.

Whistler has not done an emergency planning exercise like this in a number of years.

In addition to the REMSAT technology, there will be helicopters and air tankers used in the exercise.

The public will be invited to check out the technology as well as learn how to protect their homes from wildfires in various displays.

The Coastal Fire Centre issued a release this week encouraging residents to prepare their homes for wildfires.

Solutions include landscaping with fire resistant vegetation, maintaining a 10 metre space of non-combustible materials around a home and using fire smart construction, like metal roofing and non-combustible siding.

There are already four wildfires of note in the Coastal Fire Centre.

Hall said this exercise can only strengthen the relationship between key players in the valley as well as the relationship between Whistler Fire Rescue Service and the B.C. Forest Service.

"It gives an opportunity to work together, to work with B.C. Forest Service, which is something that we would do if we had a wildfire event," said Hall.

"It really is going to develop the working relationship between the two groups for the betterment of everyone who lives in the corridor."

A number of community agencies, like Tourism Whistler, the Whistler Health Care Centre and Whistler-Blackcomb, have been invited to attend and exercise their own emergency plans. As well, companies like Terasen Gas, B.C. Rail and B.C. Hydro have been invited.

For more information about wildfires check out FireSmart, a guide that focuses on reducing the risk of loss from fires affecting homes and forests.

Go to www.partnersinprotection.ab.ca/downloads

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