Whistler Fire Services can’t be sure how long a fire above Nordic Estates was burning before they were called in Tuesday, but lightning was likely the cause.
On Sunday a dry thunderstorm moving across the south part of the province started dozens of lightning fires, including 19 fires in the Coastal Fire Centre. One of the larger fires, reported at up to 20 hectares in size at one point, was on Mount Moe near Whistler, and was extinguished by water bombers, helicopters and rain. Another smaller fire, measuring just 0.2 hectares, was reported on Mt. Currie. That fire was also controlled by air, and with the assistance of a rapid attack crew that was airlifted into the area.
The fire above Nordic was in no danger of spreading to the Nordic Estates subdivision, said assistant fire chief Geoff Playfair.
“It’s difficult to say when it started, although it was probably the day before yesterday, but the supposition is that, yes, it was a lightning strike,” said Playfair. “An old dead snag had fallen over and was on fire, as well as the moss and some other wood in an area around a rock bluff. We took it very seriously, but the risk to the subdivision — particularly yesterday with the heavy rain — was very low.”
The Nordic fire was addressed by a unified command, with representatives from the B.C. Forest Service, a fire suppression crew from Whistler-Blackcomb and Whistler Fire Services working together. The Forest Service handled the helicopter response, which was dropping buckets of water onto the open flames until ground crews were in place. At that point the helicopter brought in water bladders and supplies to about 10 fire fighters on the ground. The response took about four hours in total, from the first crews arriving at 3 p.m. to around 7 p.m. when the fire fighters picked their way back down the steep terrain surrounding the bluff.
The Nordic fire may have started with Sunday’s storm, or as a result of more lightning strikes on Monday afternoon.
Within a few hours fire crews were battling most of the blazes by helicopter, water bombers, and ground crews. Most were under control by late Monday morning.
However, a few fires were listed as major events, including the fires at Mount Moe (initially mistaken as a fire on Wedge Mountain) and on Mt. Currie.
According to Donna MacPherson, information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre, crews are on standby to mop up both local fires but will likely wait for clear weather on Friday before heading to the site. Both are considered 100 per cent controlled and contained at this point.
“Basically both (fires) are very quiet, mostly because there has been a fair amount of precipitation up your way,” said MacPherson. “We’re planning on actioning the Mt. Currie fire again today (Wednesday), so we’ll have some crews in there. The one on (Mt. Moe) is harder because of the cloud cover. What we need to do is go in there and do an infrared scan of both fires and look for hotspots, using a helicopter, and then send crews in to handle whatever we find. We’re not expecting much at this point, but it’s a precaution we always take with a fire of that size.”
The fire at Mt. Moe was initially rated as 12 hectares, but was expanded to 20 hectares because of aerial observations. Crews will eventually take GPS points around the section of forest that was burning to determine the exact size.
The Coastal Fire Centre responded to dozens of calls regarding lighting strikes since Sunday, said Peter Cooke, another fire information officer with the forest service. “The whole southwest saw a lot of lightning, so we’ve been checking out where some of the strikes have been reported. Not every strike results in a fire, but the woods have been pretty dry recently and there was very little rain with that particular storm.”
“We’re lucky that lightning is rare for Whistler, and it’s usually accompanied by heavy rains,” he said. “This was a rare situation where the forests were dry, and the storm didn’t bring much precipitation to the area.”
The fire hazard rating varies from region to region recently, but overall Cooke says the rating is high for the entire Coast Zone. Whistler has been rated as extreme several times over the summer, and was already rated as high when temperatures climbed into the mid-30s before the weekend.
Other lightning storms were also reported in the Okanagan region, including a fire about 38 hectares in the Shea Lake area 40 km south of Merritt.
As of Monday, 211 fires were reported in the Coastal Fire Centre, 186 of which were person-caused. Usually people are responsible for about 50 to 60 per cent of fires.