Skiing and riding the north flank of Blackcomb will be a little different this winter after an Aug. 5 lightning strike triggered a blaze in the Crystal Zone.
A crew of 80 firefighters with helicopter support managed to contain the blaze to roughly 28 hectares, centred around the Outer Limits gladed run. The burn included parts of Arthur's Choice, Ridge Runner, Rock 'n' Roll and an area outside the ski area boundary known as CBC trees.
Since the fire, people have been wondering what the area will look like this winter, and whether it will be open to the public.
According to Arthur DeJong, manager of mountain planning and environmental resources for Whistler Blackcomb, the answers to those questions are "great" and "yes."
"The danger trees are taken out as the ground crews suppress the fire... and there were over 80 firefighters working under the canopy. Any tree that's dangerous had to be removed," he said. "The long story short is that the danger trees have been almost all removed in the process of putting out the fire. Our strategy is that this was a natural event, and so we'll be monitoring the forest from this point forward."
According to DeJong, they will assess the remaining trees after the next windstorm, after a heavy rainfall to check slope stability, and after the snow falls and puts weight on the trees. After that the areas will be open to the extent that they were in the past.
"Our strategy is to work with the ecology and only take out what we have to take out," he said.
"The big question is what this will mean for the quality of skiing," he said. "There will be more space in those gladed areas like Outer Limits. Where the trees are still standing all the low branches and foliage is gone, which creates more space and results in less of a tree-well effect, so it actually improves the skiing somewhat. It's going to be a lot more wide open in there, and it's going to look very different.
"Arthur's Choice got nailed as well and we haven't changed the name yet, but there's a section we're calling Arthur's Toast."
Many of the trees appear to have survived, even if they have lost branches or are scorched on the outside. Some will live for decades unless disease moves in, while others continue to grow indefinitely. The area to the north of Outer Limits remains more or less intact with a natural border keeping skiers inbounds and away from the cliff bands on the other side of the rope.
DeJong says the damage could have been far worse, and praised the work of fire crews in getting the fire under control. It was also a good area for a fire, relatively speaking, with little fuel to burn and a lot of free water for crews to draw on. In another location on Whistler or Blackcomb it would have been much harder to put out.
"Fires represent the greatest threat of natural or man-made catastrophe for the whole resort area, so we have to do everything we can to make sure we don't see any more of these fires. There's nothing to do with a lightning fire except go out and fight, but we need to be more vigilant against human-caused fires," said DeJong.