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Fire hazard prompts backcountry closures, caution in coastal region

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Local businesses receive exemptions; events postponed

While crews in the Interior continue to battle serious blazes, the continuing dry conditions on the coast prompted the Coastal Fire Centre last week to issue a general backcountry travel ban for all Crown land and Forest Service roads in southern British Columbia. The areas affected included the Chilliwack, Squamish and South Island Forest Districts.

The travel restriction came into effect on Friday, Aug. 29, and will remain in effect until Sunday, Sept. 14.

The travel restriction applies to all timber harvesting operations and recreational forest use on Crown land. Those Forest Service roads that are necessary to access private and commercial properties remain open. Private, municipal and First Nations reserve land are exempt from the order.

The decision to close the Crown land occurred a day before the Labour Day long weekend, traditionally one of the busiest times for B.C.’s backcountry. There was some confusion as to what was closed and what remained open, as it took the Coastal Fire Centre and other agencies the entire weekend to post signs and barricade roads.

According to Starr Munro, the fire information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre, the restriction will be reviewed each week and will be extended until the area sees substantial rain.

"We need at least two to three days of heavy rain in most areas, and up to five days of constant rain in others to be safe," she said.

"The soil is really dry and the fires are getting pretty deep. The light rain we got only really wet the top layer, which is the quickest to dry, so it didn’t do much to help our situation."

Munro said there have been 225 wildfires in the coastal region this year, burning 246 hectares of forest. Some 163 of those fires are human-caused, related to everything from campfires to careless smoking to vehicle accidents.

"We’re fortunate so far that most of the fires have been small, less than a hectare in size, and were put out before they got too big," said Munro.

The number of human caused fires has been dropping, which means people are getting the message she said. Even so, fire wardens spent their long weekends visiting popular camping spots, both official and unofficial, to let people know about the closure.

"As more and more people become aware, we’re shifting from information and education to compliance and enforcement," said Munro. People can be fined up to $10,000 with up to six months of jail just for violating the ban. Starting a fire, even accidentally, could have more serious consequences.

Learning from the forest fires in the Interior that have so far destroyed more than 230 homes and buildings, Munro says the strategy now is "to hit it hard, and hit it with all we’ve got," she said. The goal is to keep small fires from spreading underground or above ground by using all the means the fire fighters have at their disposal, including waterbombers, water, and fire retardants.

Whistler Fire Services has taken that strategy to heart in battling a few local fires in recent days.

On Friday, Aug. 29, Whistler Fire Services were alerted to a fire in Lost Lake Park, near the entrance of the Tin Pants mountain bike trail and the old disc golf course.

A pair of mountain bikers saw a patch of ground smouldering, and emptied their water onto the area before calling Fire Services. Firefighters attended the sight, and found that a carelessly dropped cigarette butt was at fault, and that the area in question was on the verge of catching fire.

They had to dig down more than four feet to put the burning material out, spending about three and a half hours at the site.

At about 2:30 a.m. on Sept. 3, Whistler Fire Services was called to a house on Summer Lane in Emerald Estates.

A fire had started in a planter box attached to the front of the house, which moved up the front of the house and under the eaves into the attic. Five trucks and 35 firefighters attended the blaze to ensure that they could contain the fire to the house without it spreading to nearby trees.

The second floor of the house was damaged by debris from the attic and ceiling, and the first floor suffered smoke and water damage.

The fire is still under investigation, although Fire Services believe it was the result of improper disposal of "smoking materials" in the planter.

"We’ve had a few little fires, grass and bark mulch fires mostly, from people throwing their cigarette butts around willy nilly," said Whistler Fire Chief Bruce Hall.

Whistler Fire Services has been helping to close the trails around town, and made the final call to close certain areas within the municipal boundaries, resulting in the postponement of events, including the West Side Wheel Up, the Samurai of Singletrack and the Sea to Summit Adventure Race.

Areas that were between Alta Lake and Highway 99 were left open. Currently the only trails that are open are in the Nesters Hill area (Cut Yer Bars), the Emerald Forest (River Runs Through It, Emerald Trail), the Lost Lake trails, and the Valley Trail.

Most of the other trails have signs, which Fire Services finished putting up early this week.

Still, Whistler Fire Services doesn’t have the resources to man all of the trails.

"We’re relying on the realization people should have of how dangerous it is to go in to the woods or bike trails right now," said Hall. Hall said that a bike is capable of starting a fire in these conditions, pointing to a recent fire in the Merritt area that was caused by a spark from a horseshoe.

The closures are as much for our own protection as for the protection of the forest, said Hall, who spent some time in the Interior in August assisting with the fire efforts there.

"When we get a fire in these conditions, they’re moving so fast. Some of them move so fast that even running as fast as you can could never outrun them," he said.

The province and Whistler are learning from the situation in the Interior said Hall, which should make it easier to fight fires in the future. In addition, a lot more experienced forest fire fighters, including a local group of firefighters that went to Cache Creek recently to help out with a fire there, also improves Whistler’s ability to respond.

For now Hall is urging caution for Whistler and the Sea to Sky corridor, asking people to abide by the trail closures and fire bans. In addition, smokers should be a lot more careful in the way they dispose of their butts.

Keith Bennett the manager of parks operations for the RMOW, said that people are monitoring the trails that are open very closely, and that the municipality is prepared to close everything if it needs to.

"For us it made sense to close everything down first, and then see what we could safely open," he said.

"We’re hoping the word is out by now and that people are being careful out there. You’d really have to wonder about somebody who has no idea what’s going on in the province and in the area at this point."

Bennett remembers being on fire watch in Whistler back in 1985, when all forest areas were closed to the public.

"In some ways the situation is even worse that it was then. There are a lot more houses for one thing," he said.

The backcountry travel ban took a number of Whistler businesses by surprise, forcing them to close temporarily. Many of these companies have since applied for and received exemptions from the ban, agreeing to take certain precautions, and are back up and running.

According to Munro, exemptions were given in some cases when there was the potential for a large economic or environmental impact, but can be revoked at any time. Many of the individuals and companies applying for exemptions didn’t get it.

Eric Sinclair of Cougar Mountain Wilderness Adventures said business was down about 50 per cent this long weekend as a result of the perception in town and among visitors that all businesses were closed.

Cougar Mountain, Whistler ATV and Whistler Outdoor Adventure received exemptions on Saturday afternoon, after equipping their machines with axes and fire extinguishers.

"We understand the ban and the need for it, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there right now," said Sinclair. "Now we’re just doing everything we can to get the proper word out that while public access is closed, companies like Cougar Mountain are still open for business."

In addition to equipping tours with equipment to fight fires, Sinclair says the company has a fire suppression plan in place, which was a factor in getting an exemption.

"We really took a big hit because of this. People were turning away business from us because they really thought we were closed," he said.

"We support the ban one hundred per cent – if we did have a fire, there’s no way to control it. That was a bigger issue than closing us for a weekend, so I can see where the government was coming from."

Sinclair said the Forest Ministry was understaffed, which is part of the reason there was so much confusion after the ban. Still, he says they moved fast to grant Cougar Mountain its exemption.

Whistler-Blackcomb also worked hard to get the word out that it was still in operation, and spokesmen say the number of visitors over the weekend exceeded their expectations.

According to Stuart Rempel, the vice president of sales and marketing for Whistler-Blackcomb, the mountains have 22 million gallons of water collected in reservoirs, and the snowmaking guns are ready to go if needed.

"We have fire suppression crews ready to go if needed and we are very serious about the fire situation," said Rempel. "Fire fighting resources (In B.C.) are stretched very thin all over right now, whereas our resources are very focused."

All employees and trucks are ready to fight fires if needed, and Whistler-Blackcomb has a helicopter fly-over before nightfall every day to see if there are any problems.

According to Munro, 1985 is the driest season on record. The last time the conditions were assessed was back in July, and she believes there is a good chance that 2003 will surpass 1985 in terms of dryness.

"We’ve been too busy fighting fires and reacting to everything that’s going on to make an assessment, but once the fire season is over – if it ends – that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking at. This could very well be the driest summer on record for the Coast regions," she said.

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