Opinion » Editorial

Help decide which way the wind blows in a firefight



The pervasive and oppressive threat of a wildfire was rammed home this week when Whistlerites awoke to the smell of smoke on Monday morning.

It clung to the valley like the fine dry dust on a mountain bike after a day's ride, and you couldn't help but think: have 14 consecutive days in extreme fire danger, waiting on pins and needles for one fatal mistake, come home to roost?

As it turned out, the house fire was out by the time most of us awoke and just the smell, the haze and the devastation lingered, along with the thought of what may have been.

Two people were injured and four homes damaged in the close-knit Spruce Grove subdivision, one home was completely destroyed. Life's possessions melted away.

It was terrifying. It was life changing.

It could have all been so much worse; it just depended on which way the wind was blowing. Literally.

Whistler's fire department wasn't taking any chances. Help was called in right away from Pemberton and Garibaldi to contain the blaze. And as luck would have it, if you can call it that amid the rubble, there was no wind to speak of.

The response from beyond our boundaries speaks volumes. A raging fire burning out of control in the height of a hot, dry summer could be disastrous for the resort, not just disastrous for four homeowners and tenants.

And the municipality knows it.

The fire's potential for destruction is staggering. Consider just how different your laps through Arthur's Choice are on a powder day now — that once lush snowy landscape now a charcoaled tree graveyard. And while epic skiing still abounds, those barren, spooky trees serve as stark reminder of how a forest fire can change your world in an instant. That August 2009 lightning strike blazed for more than a week before it was classified as extinguished. But not before it ripped through 30 hectares on Blackcomb Mountain. Arthur's Choice never looked the same.

That's why the muni is pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into wildfire protection planning these days, boosted by the 2005 Blackwell report, which has since been updated.

Consider the stats in that report: the RMOW is more than 24,000 hectares in size and more than 65 per cent of that is forested. There are more than 9,200 homes, 3,900 of which are occupied. Here's the interesting stat: assessed value of taxable properties is in the range of $10 billion. It also bears some reminding that little Whistler is generating big bucks outside its boundaries — more than $1 million a day for higher levels of government — a fact that, let's face it, always bears repeating.

Simply put: a forest fire in Whistler isn't like most of the 1,115 or so forest fires that have burned up more than 250,000 hectares in far-off places around the province since April 1.

The Blackwell report states: "While the probability of fire in coastal communities is substantially lower when compared to the interior of British Columbia, the consequences of a large fire could be very significant given structure values, access and evacuation constraints, population size, topography and environmental considerations."

Whistler's fire history shows that there have been some large fires here in the last century.

"Most have been human caused and the number of ignitions was higher than the historic average in the last decade," states Blackwell.

And so, just as the Spruce Grove neighbours rallied to help on Monday morning, so too is the muni looking for help from residents.

As the municipality works in the forest fringes, doing "fuel break" work, they are also asking people to consider FireSmarting their homes using specific building materials and landscaping practices. Homeowners can have a free home assessment done by the Whistler Fire Rescue Service to identify ways to ensure their property meets FireSmart standards.

It can make all the difference — change the way the wind is blowing.

Take the case of Spruce Grove. Some of those building materials in the neighbouring homes had metal roofs and hardie plank siding.

Fire Chief Sheila Kirkwood told Pique: "... you can see when you go out to the scene there, that that siding is just discoloured, and you can see all the wood trim around the windows is burnt away, as is the fascia on the roof, so just a really good example of why we're recommending FireSmart building materials. You know, had some of those houses on either side had cedar shake roofs, we probably would have been dealing with a significant number of house fires."