Wildfire prevention remains daunting task 

Council retreat set for Dec. 12 and 13

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO BY BRADEN DUPUIS - CHIPPING IN Whistler's FireSmart crew removed about 17,000 kilograms of brush from the community over 16 community chipper days in 2018.
  • File photo by Braden Dupuis
  • CHIPPING IN Whistler's FireSmart crew removed about 17,000 kilograms of brush from the community over 16 community chipper days in 2018.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has expanded its wildfire protection program in recent years, with more work planned for 2019—but after two consecutive record-breaking wildfire seasons in B.C., the work can't take place fast enough.

"It's remarkable what's been done; It's daunting what needs to be done," said Councillor Arthur De Jong, noting the sheer amount of land that is recommended for fuel treatment (about 1,200 hectares within municipal boundaries), Whistler's rising summer temperatures and the fact that most homes are rated at high or extreme risk.

With his assignment to the environment portfolio, De Jong will be directly involved with Whistler's prevention efforts for the next four years.

"We can't move on it fast enough, so I look forward to working with staff and council on helping you to continue to excel the program," he said.

In a report to council on Nov. 20, environmental stewardship manager Heather Beresford and FireSmart coordinator Scott Rogers detailed work done in 2018 and actions planned for the coming year.

"I think given what we've been seeing in our province the last few years and what is currently happening in California, there is no question that our community needs to take action," Beresford said.

"It seems that it's becoming an annual event now, and the programs that we're doing here at the municipality and getting the community more engaged on are really important, because we want to be able to turn this around."

The RMOW's wildfire strategy focuses on three areas: fuel reduction, FireSmart education and support, and policy development and process improvements.

On the fuel-thinning front, the municipality targets 30 hectares of Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) each year, along with 40 hectares of landscape fuel breaks.

Four projects were undertaken in 2018: Kadenwood (24 hectares, about 50 per cent complete; funded in part by a $400,000 grant from the Union of BC Municipalities), Alpine Meadows and the cemetery (two sites totalling 21.7 hectares, completed in October; funded in part by another $400,000 grant from UBCM), the Callaghan Forest Service Road (22 hectares complete, another 4.5 scheduled for November; the Cheakamus Community Forest will receive up to $388,000 from the Forest Enhancement Society for the work, with the RMOW covering the rest), and fuel thinning around 33 critical infrastructure sites.

The FireSmart program also had another busy year, with a new three-person crew joining Rogers to tackle 16 community chipper days and other awareness initiatives.

"Over 16 days, we removed 72,000 kilograms of brush from our community ... some properties would have a pile of brush that's the size of a car on their driveways," Rogers said.

"People have been getting busy, and it's great."

The FireSmart crew also worked to thin around Whistler Housing Authority properties and other municipal sites, held 18 FireSmart work days with stratas and coordinated a new Adopt-a-Trail program.

On the policy and process front, a new Wildfire Development Permit Area was developed and included in the updated Official Community Plan that will regulate building materials and landscaping across three risk levels throughout the valley.

"It was a huge effort, and where we ended up with it was dividing the municipality into three different zones—high risk, moderate and wildland areas—with associated guidelines," Beresford said, adding that Whistler Village is "a bit of a different animal," and required some specific guidelines of its own.

The wildfire strategy for 2019 is similar to this year, targeting the same three strategy areas.

Fuel thinning work will wrap up in Kadenwood, while a new project in partnership with the Cheakamus Community Forest is already getting underway on Cheakamus Lake Road funded by the Forest Enhancement Society of BC and RMOW (75 and 25 per cent, respectively).

The CCF expects to have 60 hectares done by late spring next year, and another 60 underway by autumn.

More community chipper days and strata work days, as well as continued public outreach and education, are also in store for the FireSmart program in 2019.

On policy development, the RMOW plans to provide education and resources around the new Wildfire DPA.

The RMOW budgeted about $1.4 million for the wildfire program in 2018—$800,000 from external grants and $620,000 from municipal funds. Protective Services also budgeted $100,000 for the program.

In 2019, the estimated budget request for the wildfire program is $1.245 million, as well as $185,00 for the FireSmart program and $50,000 for Whistler Fire Rescue Service activities.

Staff is still investigating external funding opportunities.

With council's annual retreat set for Dec. 12 and 13 at Brew Creek, is there a chance more money gets directed towards wildfire prevention in the 2019 budget?

"That will certainly be a discussion," said Mayor Jack Crompton.

"One of the things that the electorate really talked about during the campaign was wildfire ... council will be considering all line items, and I think that wildfire is one that we pay close attention to."

Find more info at www.whistler.ca/wildfire.

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