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Local officials confident in ability to respond to wildfires

Arson charges approved in July 2 fire on Blackcomb

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With hundreds of wildfires burning thousands of hectares and a provincial state of emergency in place, local officials and residents in Whistler are on high alert.

As of Tuesday, July 11, there were 219 fires burning a little over 43,000 hectares province-wide.

While most fire activity is happening outside of the Coastal Fire Centre, which includes Whistler, the BC Wildfire Service (BCWS) has assets ready to respond in the event of a fire closer to home, said BCWS' chief fire information officer Kevin Skrepnek.

"We're constantly looking at that in terms of our preparedness levels, based on what the fire danger rating is going to be in that area," Skrepnek said.

"So we certainly do keep adequate resources in other fire centres even when we are still pulling resources in to assist on situations like what we've going on."

BCWS has 200 helicopters and nearly 40 fixed-wing aircraft flying across the province right now, Skrepnek said.

"They're going to be incredibly useful for the next little while," he said.

"Given that we already have a significant fire load, we really want to respond as quickly and effectively as possible to any new fires so that they're not adding to what we've already got on the boards now."

ARSON CHARGES APPROVED IN JULY 2 FIRE

While a July 2 fire in the Blackcomb benchlands was well managed thanks to a quick, coordinated response from local and provincial crews, a man detained at the scene now faces charges for igniting the blaze.

A criminal charge of arson was recently approved by Crown Counsel, said Whistler RCMP Cpl. Darren Durnin.

"The man's actions at a makeshift campsite, although not believed to be intentional, were not consistent with the fire ban in place at the time, and as a result of the police investigation deemed criminal," Durnin wrote in a July 11 media report.

The accused was brought before a judge and released from custody. He will make his next appearance in provincial court on July 26.

"The Whistler RCMP is reminding the public of the importance of knowing what the current bans and restrictions are in the area," wrote Durnin.

Meanwhile, Squamish RCMP and Squamish Fire ticketed a group of campers at Brohm Lake on July 9 after locating a campfire smouldering in the middle of a trail.

The group was given a ticket under the Wildfire Act, which can result in fines of up to $1,150.

Stay up to date on local fire bans by checking www2.gov.bc.ca/gov/content/safety/wildfire-status.

LOCAL OFFICIALS REMAIN CONFIDENT

Whistler Fire Rescue Service (WFRS) chief Geoff Playfair said he's confident in the ability of fire crews to mount an initial attack on any new fires near Whistler, pointing to the successful response to the Blackcomb benchlands blaze on July 2.

"It was textbook in terms of a response, and a coordinated response between Whistler Blackcomb, BC Wildfire and ourselves, and the fire was held to .35 hectares, which is really a good indication of how quickly that was put out," he said.

Meanwhile, a crew of five local firefighters is heading out to assist with the 5,000-hectare Gustafsen fire near 100 Mile House, Playfair said.

"It shouldn't have an immediate impact on us," he added, noting the WFRS has about 85 firefighters.

The Whistler area may benefit from being more humid than what's been seen in the Interior as of late, Playfair said.

"I'm not saying anybody should relax and start lighting fires, not at all... We still have a problem and we need to recognize that," he said.

Officials at the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District (SLRD) are also confident, said emergency program manager Ryan Wainwright.

"The ability of (BCWS) to reach out across the province and internationally, it's a well-tested system, and there are resources available in other parts of the country," he said.

The first of 310 firefighting personnel from other provinces began arriving in B.C. on July 9, and will be deployed wherever they're needed most.

"(BCWS is) very busy right now, and we do respect that, but in terms of if there was a threatening fire in our area I don't have any doubt that they would be able to provide the resources necessary to manage it," Wainwright said.

The key messages for people in the district right now, he added, are to be aware of the province-wide campfire bans currently in place, be vigilant with smoking materials and be prepared to evacuate if necessary.

"Do you have a grab-and-go kit? Do you know where your important documentation and medications are? Do you have a plan for your pets? If you're a livestock producer, do you have a plan to evacuate your livestock? That kind of thing," Wainwright said. (See below for more resources.)

He also encouraged residents to sign up for the SLRD Alert emergnecy notification system if they haven't already.

"That's going to be a system that's going to give you an early awareness of something going on in your immediate area," he said. "So take the 15 minutes to sign up and that will give you text message, phone call and email as to what's going on and how it might impact you directly."

ON-MOUNTAIN MONITORING — PREPARING FOR THE WORST

At Whistler Blackcomb, the on-mountain fire protocol begins with monitoring, said Doug MacFarlane, senior director of mountain operations.

"We have a highly sophisticated lightning monitoring service that can detect lightning 100 kilometres away and automatically sends a text to mountain operations," said MacFarlane in an emailed statement.

"As lightning moves closer, the text-out list grows and plans are set in motion to ensure the safety of our guests and mountains. There is always someone on duty to enact our fire protocol."

There's also overnight security doing lookout at various points in the valley.

If worse comes to worst, the Resort Municipality of Whistler has extensive emergency plans and protocols in place, including an evacuation plan with four stages: Notice of Threat, Evacuation Alert, Evacuation Order and Rescind/Lifted.

The public would be notified of an Evacuation Order by door-to-door notifications, public address systems, media briefings, radio and TV broadcasts, and postings on social media and www.whistler.ca. Those without vehicles would be transported out by bus and carpooling.

"We've been working very, very hard on having the emergency fire operations plan in place," said Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

A corridor-wide evacuation plan is still in the works, and should be finalized in the coming months.

"That's underway and it will consider things like anywhere where there's three lanes of traffic, they would all be dedicated to southbound traffic. We haven't formalized the plan yet, but steps like that are being considered," she added.

"We would also potentially encourage people to go north to evacuate the corridor if it was appropriate to do that."

BE FIRESMART

While Whistler is safe for now, homeowners and stratas should be taking every step to FireSmart their properties.

The Sunrise strata in Whistler Cay Heights recently went through the process with FireSmart coordinator Scott Rogers, and is very happy with the results, said strata council member Pru Moore.

"People are complimenting how fabulous it looks. The property looks beautiful, it just kind of cleans it up in a very nice way," Moore said.

"People were afraid it was going to look clear cut. It doesn't at all. It just looks a little more spacious."

But to truly protect Whistler, the whole community needs to get on board, Moore added.

"When it comes to solvable problems, you might as well work on the side of caution — take the steps we can," she said, adding that she's urging other stratas to get on board with the program.

"We can't just be a little pocket of fire safety. We need the neighbourhood to get involved."

Rogers has already done more than a dozen FireSmart assessments on strata properties this year, as well as three private homes — and the more owners who reach out, the better, said environmental stewardship manager Heather Beresford.

"Scott is a machine — he's getting so much done," she said.

"Even if we can't get to people this year we can still do some planning and get ready for the following year, so phone us. Overwhelm us, please!"

-with files from Brandon Barrett

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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