Wildfire risk a threat to us all 

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF THE PREMIER OF ALBERTA
  • Photo courtesy of the office of the Premier of Alberta

The one-hectare fire on the Blackcomb Benchlands was no doubt a wake-up call for everyone in Whistler.

The speed at which people spotted it and reported it is a measure of the vigilance that exists in the community as we head into what is traditionally our wildfire season.

And though it was extinguished thanks to the efforts of the Whistler Fire Rescue Service, the BC Wildfire Service and Whistler Blackcomb it has raised questions once again about the level of risk faced by the resort.

Within 30 minutes, two helicopters were dispatched by BC Wildfire to the blaze, which was in fairly steep, wooded terrain, and within an hour after it was reported an air tanker was dropping fire retardant on the blaze.

While the investigation is ongoing, there is little doubt that it started as a result of human actions. Whistler's fire chief Geoff Playfair told Pique that a squat was found in the blaze zone and there was evidence of paper being burned. The RCMP took a man into custody on July 2 as part of the investigation.

It was only a matter of time before this sort of scenario played out with the number of people who are camping illegally, legally and squatting within the municipal boundaries and even on the fringes of the resort.

Conservation and natural resource officers are out ticketing those who are staying beyond the 14 allowed days on Crown land, and municipal bylaw is doing enforcement within the resort's boundaries.

There is a fire ban inside municipal boundaries at this time — and that includes fireworks for the idiots who were setting them off in the Nicklaus North neighbourhood on July 1 and in Whistler Cay or on Westside Road the night of the fire. (Good god, people — what are you thinking?)

The July 2 fire was only a few hundred metres from a residential neighbourhood, though fire fighters at the time were more concerned about it spreading into the dry woods uphill thanks to some vigourous winds at the time.

Wildfire risk has been top of mind for local government leaders for some years now. Since 2009, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) has spent $1.7 million in fuel management work to help buffer Whistler against wildfire.

And last year, council commissioned a Wildfire Protection Strategy report by B.A. Blackwell & Associates, which outlined 17 recommendations to mitigate the risk in the long term — a multi-million-dollar plan.

Reading the plan, the cost seems prohibitive, but the report points to the cost of allowing a wildfire to rip through B.C.'s top tourist destination — and it calls for the province to step up with funding.

"Given the current shortfall in funding necessary to adequately protect the RMOW within the foreseeable future, to manage the current wildfire risk profile of the community, and to protect the significant contribution of the resort to the economy of British Columbia, additional support and funding certainty is required from the province," states the report.

"Whistler currently welcomes over 3 million people per year, generates $1.5 billion annual provincial GDP and contributes approximately 25% of BC's total tourism export revenue.

"The loss of forest cover and the impact to the built environment and critical infrastructure due to a wildfire would create a long term negative impact on the tourism experience of Whistler, and place significant downward pressure on visitor numbers and tourism revenues to the province."

Current fuel treatment costs are up to $30,000 per hectare depending on the nature of the work that has to be done. The Protection Strategy report found that there is about 4,000 hectares of high-hazard crown land within the municipal boundary, and another 1,149 hectares within 500 metres of the structures in the core buildup area there of the resort.

And, of course, there are all the mature trees and growth in our lovely neighourhoods — greenery that is cherished by homeowners despite its obvious hazard in a wildfire situation.

Obviously, there is a lot still to do as we tackle the risk of wildfire in our community — this is not something we can allow to fall to the sides of our desks.

We need to heed the warnings out there such as the findings of two recently released debrief reports commissioned by the Alberta government into the devastating 2016 Fort McMurray fire, which caused $8.9 billion in damages and resulted in 90,000 people being evacuated.

The reports found among other things that neither the province nor the city were prepared for the disaster, that a communication breakdown meant that municipal firefighters learned of the blaze reaching the city limits via social media, and that resources were lacking to fight such a devastating event.

Learn about fire-proofing your home (www.whistler.ca/firesmart), when you are in the backcountry be responsible and if you see smoke report it immediately (dialing *5555 or 1-800-663-5555), and let's urge our local government to put pressure on the province for more funding to try and prevent wildfire risk in our community.

And, please, no more fireworks!

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