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Fire hazard simmering at extreme

All fires banned on south coast, no power tools within 10 metres of forest

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With hot and dry conditions continuing in Whistler and along the South Coast the fire hazard rating climbed to extreme last week, with no relief in sight.

Whistler fire chief Rob Whitton says the situation is dangerous for the community and urged members of the public to take special care. In the past week his crews have responded to 10 calls for unattended campfires, including a fire in the Logger's Lake area that had the potential to spread quickly.

"We've been in a no fire situation since early July, and now we've moved into extreme it's really critical for us to get the word out," he said.

That means no outside fires within the entire south coast region, from Vancouver to Bella Bella. It also means no flames such as torches or briquette or wood barbecues are allowed in local parks, and wood barbecues have been banned from residential subdivisions.

After three days in extreme, new limits on construction were imposed as well.

"All work within 30 feet of forested areas must cease," he said. "When the (fire hazard rating) was at high you could work in the interface until 1 p.m., but now that's been removed. That goes for all power tools and power equipment, although you can still use hand tools in that area."

The longer the situation remains extreme the more limits may be placed on the use of Crown lands. For example, in 2003 the province closed all Crown land to all public traffic, with the exception of provincial parks.

"We haven't heard anything from the province yet but as we move closer to the weekend we'll be taking a hard look at this situation and whether we're getting into that scenario again," Whitton said. "If next week is extreme we will be contacting the province to see what they're doing and talking to municipal managers to see what they want to do and whether we would impose our own trail shut downs.

"It's tinder dry out there, very evident of what's happening in Kelowna right now and not very far off when it comes to our weather patterns."

Whistler has different and more fire-resistant vegetation, says Whitton, but "conversely it's worse when it gets started. The dynamics of our fuel load is significantly more hazardous than the Kelowna area."

The bottom line, says Whitton, is for people to be extra cautious in everything they do, or risk a fine up to $500. There is also a chance that carelessness could start a major fire.

He said all regular and volunteer members of the fire department are aware of the fire hazard, as are construction crews in the valley. Getting the word out to the public is even more important with no rain in the forecast.

Whistler Blackcomb is taking the extreme rating seriously, and has charged all of the snowmaking cannons and made its hoses available in case of a fire. As well, all mountain staff have been trained in fire suppression, and are ready to respond to any fire reports on Whistler and Blackcomb.

There is also a blanket smoking ban in effect, with signs going up on Wednesday to inform the public of the fire risk.

Rob McSkimming, vice president of business development, said the extreme rating will affect some new trail construction in the bike park but also presented an opportunity to improve existing trails.

"There is no equipment or chainsaws in the forest right now, so yeah, it certainly affects a few things we were working," he said. "We're still able to work on the dual (slalom) course and the Boneyard, but we're also looking at this as a chance to do some more maintenance. There are some projects we would prefer to be working on, but getting out and maintaining the stuff we have up high and in the open is also something we need to get to, especially since it's been so dry."

Alice Lake fire controlled

On July 20 at 7:19 p.m. the Squamish Fire Rescue service received a call of a fire burning just 1 km away from the Alice Lake campground. Fire crews attended the scene immediately with eight members, bolstered by 10 from the B.C. Coastal Fire Service and two helicopters with water buckets. A water bomber was also called in but was not pressed into action.

The park remained open, but the RCMP were called in to evacuate the campground if the fire showed any sign of spreading. The campground was almost full.

The fire measured 0.7 hectares at its largest. Crews thought it was under control on Monday night, but it flared up again on Tuesday. It was quickly brought under control once again and by the afternoon crews were dealing with a handful of hot spots.

The fire was located in a logging cutblock, and human activity is suspected because of the proximity to local trails.

• Up until July 20, there was just 2.8 mm of rainfall reported in Whistler for the month. In July of 2008 there was roughly 21 mm of rain, although almost half of it fell in one day towards the end of the month.