The fire hazard rating at press time on Wednesday, July 14 was "High," after cooler weather and some light rain brought it down from the "Extreme" rating of the weekend. However, Whistler Fire Chief Rob Whitton says it could go up again at any moment with enough sun and wind.
"Over the spring we had significant rain, but it only took two or three days for warmer weather to get the fire danger rating up in a hurry," he said. "With winds blowing and sunshine we need significant rain, probably three or four days of heavy rain, to get that rating down and keep it down for any length of time."
Whistler Fire Services has not had any serious incidents since the hazard went up to High for the first time last week, answering one call regarding an illegal backyard fire during the three days the resort was rated as Extreme. The homeowner received a warning, but Whitton says their tolerance usually wears out when enough time has elapsed after the warning.
"We are usually pretty lenient at the start of the season to give people time to get into the groove, but if we have a week-long stretch at Extreme our sense of humour over the issue drains because we feel people have been put on notice and are blatantly ignoring (the risk)."
Whitton says the view locally is that it's a matter of "when" rather than "if" that Whistler will face a serious forest fire.
"That was evident last year when we had that lightning fire on Blackcomb," said Whitton. "It can happen here, and it has happened here. This valley does have a history of large fires moving through it, although nothing of major significance in the past 50 years."
Whitton says Whistler Fire Services gets its data from the Wildfire Management Branch of the Ministry of Forests and Range. Whistler falls into the Coastal Fire Centre, which helps maintain weather stations at Base II, at the Timing Flats on Whistler Mountain and in the Callaghan Valley. Those stations detect heat, temperature, precipitation and humidity data, which in turn is analyzed to give a fire danger rating for the area.
The High rating does carry some restrictions, including a ban on campfires, a ban on briquette and wood barbecues in parks, and a ban on certain types of construction work near the forest after 1 p.m. in the afternoon - providing the construction company posts an employee to watch the area for at least two hours after the work is completed.
The only large fire burning in the Coastal Fire Centre is at Tzuuhalem Mountain, east of Duncan on Vancouver Island. It was about one-third of a hectare in size at press time.
Around the province the situation is more serious with several large fires over 1,000 hectares burning in the Northwest Fire Centre, and a serious fire near Peachland over the weekend that resulted in the emergency evacuation of close to 70 residents by boat. Most of them lost their homes as a fire swept through Seclusion Bay. Highway 97 was also closed.
According to the province, over 60 wildfires were burning at the start of this week.
Closer to home, Whitton is urging the public and businesses to use extreme caution. While the cooler weather reduced the risk, the winds are continuing to dry out the valley.
"It doesn't need to be Extreme for a major fire to start," he said.