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Backcountry campers raise concerns for officials

Wildfire risk, wildlife attractants cause for eviction

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When Tim Wheeler reported a forest fire in the Wedge area on June 25, he wasn't expecting to be served an eviction notice two days later.

"I saw the mountainside going up and I phoned 911, I phoned *5555, like, I did everything I possibly could," Wheeler said.

"People came up, they put the fire out, they knocked it down, they did everything they could, and now I'm getting punished."

Wheeler has been in the Whistler area for six weeks after arriving from Chilliwack, and is one of several people who have taken to camping in the areas around the resort.

"I'm not a squatter. I have my own trailer, I have my own campground, I have everything. I'm looking after myself, and I've just been served with a trespass notice," he said.

"It just says get out — I am not allowed any and all future unauthorized use of Crown land within the geographical boundaries of the Sea to Sky district as defined by the Ministry of Forests Lands and Natural Resource Operations (MFLNRO)... So basically they're telling me I can't live anywhere."

In a time when housing is tight, many are taking the same route as Wheeler, heading out of municipal boundaries where they can camp legally on vacant provincial Crown lands for 14 days at a time, provided they're not breaking any laws.

"I am improving every bit of my environment," Wheeler said.

"I don't mind if you only give me two weeks, I'm good to go. Right now, the way I see it, I am not doing one thing wrong, and I'm going to start to fight this because realistically it's my right to survival, my right to life."

Another long-time local squatter was recently removed from Crown land south of Whistler after years of efforts from local and provincial authorities and services.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) filed an official complaint about the squat on June 3, 2015, citing concerns with wildfire and other hazards. The push to have him moved has been going on ever since. Local support services were involved as well but the removal went ahead as concerns over wildfire heightened.

According to the Ministry of Forests, the squatter had been in the same spot for 18 years.

However, said a ministry spokesman, there's not necessarily a crackdown occurring on illegal camping.

"It is illegal for persons to occupy Crown land without authority," the spokesperson wrote in an email.

"When a complaint is received, the ministry's natural resource officers will visit the site and assess the situation. If it is deemed in the interest of public health and safety or to protect natural resource and environmental values, then enforcement actions will be considered."

But as the weather gets hotter and drier, more campers are starting to spring up on the outskirts of Whistler, causing distress for fire crews and the Conservation Officer Service (COS) alike.

The COS met with local officials and the MFLNRO recently to talk about how to combat illegal camping and associated issues like wildlife attractants.

"We're doing enforcement in different high-problem areas," said Tim Schumacher of the COS.

"The municipality is focusing on inside the municipality, and the natural resource officers and conservation officers are enforcing the regulations just outside the municipality."

During a recent inspection of the Wedge area where Wheeler resides, Schumacher said he found 12 tents and one bus — half of them had food stored inside.

"It's probably one of the biggest public safety risks that we have considering we have so many people camping in the Sea to Sky," he said.

"As soon as a bear knows there's food inside of tents, as soon as they make that association, they start ripping into random tents, and if somebody's inside, they're going to get killed or injured."

Anyone caught starting illegal fires, leaving unsecured attractants or camping for longer than 14 days will be evicted, Schumacher added.

Campers can also be charged for having attractants onsite.

While having so many people camping in the areas around Whistler can cause anxiety at the fire hall, having more eyes and ears out in the woods is not necessarily always a bad thing, said Whistler Fire Rescue Service chief Geoff Playfair.

"More people are responsible than irresponsible, so by having people out using the Sea to Sky Trail in (the Wedge) area and Comfortably Numb and other bike trails in the area, as well as people that are driving through in the day and perhaps even camping in a responsible manner, they're likely to see problems and report them soon," he said.

"So that's helpful, but then the flipside of course is that, just with sheer numbers, you're going to get some people that are not responsible and they're going to cause some problems."

The Wedge area is particularly concerning for local fire crews, Playfair added, as it's a pinch point in the valley where the mountains close in and winds accelerate.

"It's the last point we would like to have a wildfire occur, because it would be more problematic than some other parts of the valley in terms of dealing with it," he said.

"But with all of that said we are working closely with the COs in terms of enforcement in that area, and we are just starting to do outreach with the Regional District to see if we can come up with a better plan to control that."

In municipal boundaries, camping is not permitted on roads, in parking lots or in parks, an RMOW spokesperson said in an email.

Enforcement is driven by complaints or active patrols, with wildlife attractants the main concern for municipal officials.

Bylaw Services has zero tolerance for wildlife attractants — tickets are issued for a first offence.

The RMOW doesn't track all illegal campers in Whistler, but bylaw ticket statistics show similar numbers so far this year over last (119 from January to June, 2017 compared to 113 in 2016).

Campers are asked to stick to designated areas like Riverside Resort, the Whistler RV Park and Campground, the Cal-Cheak Recreation site and Nairn Falls.

More sites can be found at www.sitesandtrailsbc.ca.

For more information on compliance and enforcement, head to www.for.gov.bc.ca/hen.

But for people like Wheeler, who believe they are following the rules and hurting no one (and in Wheeler's case, may have just saved the valley from a serious scorching), the matter comes down to a "right to exist."

"You can call me forest ranger, you can call me conscientious objector, you can call me whatever you want, but I'm certainly not too pleased with the fact that somebody is going to come up to me and tell me to get out," he said.

"I think in this nation it needs to be addressed, especially in the environment that we're in, because what does a guy do when you come up here and you just want to go to work and you can't find a place to live?"

-With files from Brandon Barrett

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