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Local crews reflect on 'textbook' response to July 2 fire on Blackcomb

State of emergency continues as fires rage across the province

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If love is like a wildfire, it's fitting that fighting one is sometimes a bit like being married.

"We're always trying to do better, but as I think anybody in a marriage can attest, communication is usually where things break down," said Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) chief Geoff Playfair with a laugh, in discussing a debrief of the July 2 fire on Blackcomb.

"It's the same with firefighting, in that for all the best of intentions, you're dealing with portable radio equipment and a lot of noises — you've got pumps running, you've got vehicles that are idling, you've got aircraft roaring overhead... all of that can lead to confusion and miscommunication, so we work really hard to confirm information that's provided on radio," he said.

"None of that was a problem with (the July 2 fire), although saying that, we'll always try and do better."

The response to the fire on the Blackcomb benchlands was "textbook" in terms of coordination between the WFRS, Whistler Blackcomb (WB), the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) and the RCMP, Playfair said, thanks to early reporting and favourable access to the scene.

WFRS crews arrived on site in about 20 minutes using roads through the reservoir behind the benchlands.

"Those same roads access WB, so at the time, as our crew pulled out of the fire hall and around the corner, they could visually see the fire, and they were able to get WB notified that something was going on on their tenure at the same time as getting BCWS notified that something was going on in the forest lands," Playfair said.

"So the notification fanned out almost immediately."

WFRS and WB crews arrived at about the same time, and WB was able to establish water from its snowmaking system to help battle the blaze, Playfair said.

"Meanwhile, BCWS was already getting its initial attack crew responding via helicopter, and then two helicopters with buckets for water were responding," he said. "So it all came together quickly and within a few hours the fire was extinguished."

With so many agencies in the mix and hundreds of gallons of water falling from the sky, communication is especially key for keeping ground crews safe, Playfair added.

"If you're hit with that dead on it can be hazardous for sure, and especially with the bigger air drops of the retardant, there's a lot more weight there," he said.

"So absolutely there has to be real coordination between the air crews and the ground crews to ensure that the ground crews are out of the way so the drops can be done safely, and so that was done."

Despite the textbook response on July 2, the debrief among agencies is helpful in ensuring next time goes just as smooth, Playfair added.

"You get an understanding of the challenges for a different role, and then you can think that through and be better prepared for the next time," he said.

ATTACKING FROM THE AIR

Two of the aircraft in action for the July 2 fire came courtesy of Blackcomb Helicopters (BH).

Operations manager Andrew Bradley said the company currently has six aircraft stationed locally and another six helping BCWS fight fires to the north.

While the local aircraft may be hired out on tours, BH will never remove all assets from the corridor, Bradley said.

"We have clients in the corridor that rely on us as well, so whether we're doing a tour or we're out helping other clients, there's always a number sitting here, and that could be Pemberton, Whistler and Squamish," Bradley said.

BH's Bell 407s can carry between 900 to 1,200 litres of water at a time, and given the proper approvals, could have multiple machines on a fire inside of 20 minutes — but the company needs clearance from BCWS before it can respond to a fire, Bradley added.

"I have my connections in BCWS that I can call directly, and then that gets the ball rolling pretty quick... whether they will allow me to go action it right away or not I couldn't tell you," he said.

"We've got enough back here that we're comfortable with, and obviously BCWS has got assets in Pemberton that they're comfortable with as well... it is a business, we need to make money as well, but we've made a mandate that we'll never take everything away from the valley. That's our pledge to the community."

The company has also been hired by the RMOW and WB to do aerial fire reconnaissance every evening, Bradley added.

CAN WHISTLER BE MORE PROACTIVE?

In March, local pilot Stu Wild proposed Whistler FIRST — a not-for-profit firefighting and rescue trust that would provide a dedicated firefighting helicopter capable of quick strike aerial support and rescue within Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) boundaries and the surrounding areas.

In a subsequent report to council, RMOW staff recommended decisions on aerial firefighting be deferred to the province, citing BCWS' deep resource pool and commitment to reimbursing costs — the agency will not reimburse the RMOW for aviation resources contracted without its permission.

But Wild believes Whistler can take a more proactive approach to fire response.

"Whistler is unique and has many strong resources, yet it needs to be asked: How can we as a community be better?" Wild said.

"No system is perfect, yet it is important to evolve with the changing environment and with the growing needs of the community. Whistler FIRST does not replace any current program... (it) is a proactive approach to strengthen the program in place and to evolve to the growing need for community involvement and an increased reassurance of rapid response."

Wild said he would keep offering his education and experience to add to the conversation.

"Over 23 years fighting interface fires in nine different countries, I have seen what works and what doesn't first hand," he said.

"Why would people be against a dedicated program to add another layer of protection to the town preparedness plan?"

EMERGENCY RESOURCES

To protect your property: www.whistler.ca/fire/firesmart.

To be prepared: www.slrd.bc.ca/services/emergency-management/slrd-alert-sign; www.slrd.bc.ca/services/emergency-management/preparedness and www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca.

In case of evacuation: www.whistler.ca/services/emergency/emergency-program/what-do-emergency/evacuation and www.drivebc.ca.

For wildfire updates: www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/wildfire-status.

To donate to those affected: www.redcross.ca.

Report all fires in the RMOW by calling 911. Outside of the RMOW, call *5555 or 604-938-FIRE.

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