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A perfect firestorm

Fire officials, experts, raise the alarm for a ‘devastating’ Whistler fire



Story and photos by Vivian Moreau

It’s the summer of 2009 in Whistler, eight months before the Winter Olympics are to begin. Almost 10,000 residents are fleeing the town as an out-of-control wildfire that began with a lightning strike north of the village rages. Sparked in lodgepole pine stands left tinder dry from a mountain pine beetle attack five years earlier, the fire has been aided by north to south 35 km-afternoon winds. Clouds of torch-like embers land on the cedar-shaked roofs of multi-million dollar houses, immediately lighting the homes that are surrounded by dense, fire-propelling second growth forests.

Fire crew numbers are down after being called away weeks earlier to fires in the Interior. The municipality’s water system, driven by electric-powered water pumps, fails when fire knocks out regional transmission towers. Both the health care centre and nearby emergency command centres located in the central and lowest part of the village have been abandoned due to zero visibility from dense smoke. As the wildfire builds on itself, creating its own wind, it has the potential to wipe out Whistler’s $3 billion worth of homes, hotels, businesses and, finally, the $130 million athletes’ village.

Sound far-fetched? Not according to local, regional and provincial fire officials and wildfire experts.

As fuels management specialist for the province’s Vancouver Island-based coastal fire centre, Brian McIntosh assesses fire risks for Whistler and other communities on Vancouver Island, in the Lower Mainland, Sechelt and Sea to Sky corridor. He says Whistler has more to lose from a wildfire than just about any other community in Canada.

“It is high given the values at risk there and then the added pressure with the 2010 Olympics coming,” McIntosh said from his Nanaimo office. “They’re not going to want a blackened area in and around the Games for the TV cameras. It certainly is a major concern area for us.”

McIntosh says the potential for a devastating fire in Whistler is tangible.

“The risk is there,” he said. “When you’ve got droughts that carry over one year to another, global warming, reduced snow packs, El Nino, mountain pine beetle — when everything lines up the risk and consequences becomes more real.”

According to two reports released last year Whistler has several wildfire strikes against it: An increasing number of high fire hazard summer days that keep the dense second growth forests overly dry. A narrow, steep-walled valley that acts like a lidded pot to hold smoke at lower elevations. Poorly designed neighbourhoods without efficient escape routes. Twenty-five hundred hectares of lodgepole pine essentially left as kindling by mountain pine beetle that swept through in the past few years. Unpredictable wind patterns that shift and pick up speed mid-afternoon. A municipal water system dependent on electrically-driven pumps that can likely only handle four or five house fires at a go. Even the types of roofing materials chosen for million-dollar homes are part of the equation for setting up the perfect firestorm.

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