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FireSmart program getting up close and personal

Program busy with thinning projects, but Whistler Fire Services wants to engage neighbourhoods/stratas



Over the past few years, the municipality and province have spent over $300,000 on thinning projects around Whistler, cutting down the number of trees in densely wooded areas that haven't been managed since those areas were forested decades ago. In some areas they would find upwards of 4,000 stems per hectare, or about 10 times as many as you'd find in a natural or managed forest.

While those projects — above Bayshores, in Lost Lake Park and on Blackcomb Mountain — will reduce the risk of wildfires, Whistler Fire Services is looking to expand the FireSmart program by appealing to homeowners.

"We've certainly done a lot of thinning... and we've done some good work in public education in Alpine and Emerald, but ultimately we haven't connected well with the public," said former assistant fire chief Geoff Playfair. (Now retired).

Playfair said the goal for this summer is to bring FireSmart from the backcountry of Whistler into its neighbourhoods and stratas. If neighbourhoods agree to allow Whistler Fire Services into an area, firefighters will do a free FireSmart assessment.

An assessment, said Playfair, would look at everything — homes, manmade structures, local landscaping, parks and surrounding private and public lands — and identify actions that the homeowners can take, starting with the easiest and least expensive — such as volunteers clearing brush, moving woodpiles from homes and raking fallen branches and debris from the nearby forest. The homeowners would also get a list of other items to think about in the long term that may have significant costs, such as replacing roofs or falling trees.

To benefit from an assessment, homeowners have to be organized and have the approval of neighbours.

For issues that are outside the group's control, such as tree thinning on nearby Crown land, Playfair said that the fire department would work with governments to get the approvals in place.

"We can help by liaising with different groups," he said. "If the problem's on Crown land we can work with the province to get a Section 52 for tree thinning or tree removal so they have the legal right to do it. If it's on municipal land, or in a municipal park, we can talk to the municipality and help them get the right permits."

Whistler has already signed on as a FireSmart community, and FireSmart principles were used when building the new neighbourhoods at Rainbow and Cheakamus Crossing.

As well, when the mountain pine beetle started to kill trees in Whistler's north end, the municipality did work with private homeowners to remove trees and improve the health of the forest.

However, since virtually all of Whistler is in the forest interface, recognized by a 2004 hazard assessment, Playfair says it's essential to expand the program into neighbourhoods. For example, in his own neighbourhood in Alpine Meadows, where he's lived for 30 years, he said the environment has changed substantially over the years.

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