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Campfire safety a concern for Whistler firefighters


On June 21, the Whistler Fire Department was called in to put out two campfires that had been started in wooded areas and abandoned while still burning. The first was built on a trail at the top of the Emerald subdivision and had spread to four metres. Given the wind and the dry conditions, it could have ignited the surrounding woods if firefighters didn’t reach the site on time.

Another fire was started in a stone ring in Pine Point Park, and was sending sparks into the trees when firefighters attended the scene. There were houses nearby.

"The campfire education program is something that’s been going on for a long time," said Whistler Fire Chief Bruce Hall. "If you’re going to have a campfire put it in the proper place instead of lighting one in some duff, which was the case with these fires.

"You should always find a good, clear place to put a campfire on and when you do light it, you should make sure that it’s out before you leave the site, which these people did not do. Smouldering campfires pose a threat to the forest, especially if they’re in amongst the trees, which again both of these fires were. This is not new information."

On July 2 forest fire crews in Saskatchewan finally contained a massive forest fire, 88 square kilometres in size, just a few kilometres short of the city of Prince Albert. A few days earlier, June 30, residents of northern Alberta were allowed to return home after one of the largest fires in that province’s history covering about 2,600 square kilometres.

There is no word on the cause for either of the fires, but the RCMP are looking for a man who started a fire 40 km west of Edmonton, ignoring a ban on fires and open flames. At one point 29 different forest and brush fires were burning in that province.

At press time, a massive forest fire of unspecified size forced the evacuation of two Labrador communities that are more than 15 kilometres apart.

In Canada, about 48 per cent of forest fires are started by lightning. The other 52 per cent are caused by human carelessness, or are set deliberately.

In the past two weeks in the U.S., a part-time firefighter named Leonard Gregg was accused of deliberately setting a forest fire that consumed more than 465,000 acres and at least 423 homes because he needed the work. In Colorado, Forest Service employee Terry Barton was charged with arson for allegedly starting a 137,000 acre fire that consumed more than 130 homes – the largest forest fire in state history.

Last winter, the infamous "Black Christmas" forest fires in Sydney, Australia, measured almost 2,000 kilometres in length and destroyed more than 150 homes, and thousands of indigenous species within a national park. Fourteen youths and two adults were charged for deliberately setting multiple fires in the area.

British Columbia’s largest forest fire of the summer, covering more than 23 square kilometres, occurred when a motor home caught fire on the side of the highway.

The prospect of natural forest fires is difficult enough for the fire department to bear without the prospect of deliberately or carelessly set fires.

"It’s certainly disappointing," said Hall of the recent forest fires. "It’s a crime whether it’s a forest or a structure. That type of activity puts people and property at risk, to say nothing of the risk to the firefighters that are actually dealing with that type of thing."

Both the local fire department and the provincial Forest Service have banned all burns with the exception of campfires. If there is a drought of any kind, both groups have the authority to ban all fires if the hazard becomes extreme.

In the meantime, the fire department is urging people to use designated fire pits wherever possible, and to keep fires out of woody soil or moss and away from trees.

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