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Whistler feeling weight of heavy smoke

Red Bull 400 wiped out, Crankworx plays it safe

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As wildfires continue to burn across the province, smoky conditions have lingered over the Sea to Sky corridor, causing the cancellation of the high-profile Red Bull 400 event on the B.C. Day long weekend.

Just after 5 p.m. on Aug. 4, organizers of the race announced it would not continue as planned the following day, citing safety concerns.

"Delivering a premium race that is safe and provides a positive experience for athletes is our ultimate goal for Red Bull 400," race director Geoff Langford said in a release. "Unfortunately our event team in consultation with experts felt under the current conditions, this is not possible."

Langford did not respond to a request for further comment.

Organizers are reaching out to competitors on an individual basis to either offer refunds or to defer their registration to next year's event on July 14, 2018.

Crankworx organizers are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst, creating contingency plans for the Enduro races with less climbing if the smoke doesn't clear over the weekend. (See page 42 for related story.)

On the business front, some operators have been dealing with losses directly due to the smoke.

At the Sea to Sky Gondola, visitation levels are about half what they would be on a sunny day, said general manager Kirby Brown.

"Definitely it's been having an effect on business," Brown said. "We had a really great July — July was sunny I think all but three days — and it's been a much slower start to August, but that is sort of the nature of the business here."

For other operators, like Canadian Wilderness Adventures (CWA), the smoke has had no impact.

"I don't think that we have seen any decreases from that... as far as I can tell it's business as usual," said general manager Craig Beattie.

Some customers have been asking about the ban on recreational vehicles in the backcountry now in effect in other parts of the province, but Beattie noted the ban doesn't currently affect the Coastal Fire Centre or operators like CWA.

"They're not closing out commercial operators, because we have fire suppression equipment with us. We have the ability to help with spot fires, so we're kind of the eyes and ears out there, which is nice," he said.

From the hotel perspective, there have been some cancellations, but they are "few and far between," said Saad Hasan, chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler.

Nor are operators hearing much about the smoke from guests, partly because the smoke is not unexpected with the current fire situation in the province, he added.

"Everyone in the world knows what's going on in the province, but also as far as the smoke is concerned, it's everywhere, including Sunshine Coast and Vancouver Island," Hasan said.

"People are exposed to it wherever they are, so there haven't been people coming down to the reception desk saying 'I want to leave because the air here is bad.'"

Tourism Whistler's (TW) official room-night data won't be available until next month, but the pace of bookings shows no negative short-term impact on room nights, said communications manager Patricia Westerholm.

"As of (August 4), the pace of bookings for this week was still up by eight per cent week over week. As it stands currently, we are forecasting that room nights for August 2017 will be flat with last year," she said.

TW's visitor centre and website have been fielding a lot of inquiries on the smoke and current fire situation, Westerholm added.

"We are making sure that our front-line teams have the most up-to-date information to share, and that they are directing guests to official resources for that information, as some of the information can change quickly," she said.

"We have had a handful of cancellations at from guests with health concerns regarding the air quality, but most guests with concerns are choosing to rebook, rather than completely cancel. And the cancellations we have had haven't been enough to significantly impact room nights."

Meanwhile, some local sports organizations have made changes to adapt to the conditions. The Whistler Slo Pitch Association has lost a week of games as of Aug. 8, as the air-quality health index has been at 7 or higher for all scheduled nights since Aug. 1. According to the WSPA's Facebook page, the games will be added to the end of the season.

The Whistler Youth Soccer Club has cancelled practices, while the Whistler Touch Rugby League has postponed games, bumping back its final to Aug. 15. As well, the Whistler Off-Road Cycling Association cancelled its Aug. 2 Phat Wednesday race and Aug. 3 Toonie Race.

Local golf courses have experienced some minor impacts, according to Nicklaus North Golf Course general manager Jason Lowe, noting that while "strenuous activity" is not recommended in the current conditions, golfers can avoid overexerting themselves on the course. He said only "four or five" bookings have been reneged so far, but fewer golfers are walking up to play.

"It hasn't affected the tee sheet that dramatically but what we have noticed is it's affected people booking from hotels, last-minute bookings," Lowe said. "The wildcard is maybe we're losing future bookings from people who are waiting it out to see where it goes."

Lowe said the course's restaurant, Table 19, closed its patio for two days during "very high" health risk to keep staff from experiencing the ill effects of the smoke.

Up at the Meadows of Pemberton, meanwhile, general manager Kevin McLeod said business was bustling over the long weekend, as it differentiates itself with lower green fees as well as their newly opened mini-golf and foot-golf (with soccer balls) fields.

"The course was packed. We put on some special pricing for that, of course," McLeod said. "Although you can see the smoke, very rarely can you even smell it.

"People are calling and trying to gauge it. We tell them what it's like and most of them still show up."

McLeod said he's not worried about losing business to other parts of the province, with many areas feeling even more acute effects of the fires.

"The problem is there's no place that's really clear. You go to Vancouver and it's even worse in some places. You can't go to the Interior because all the roads are closed, so basically, you're going to the Island, and I don't think they're going to make that big trek for a game of golf," he said.

Stay up to date with the latest air quality readings here:

The combination of smoke and heat can be tough for many people, particularly young children, the elderly, or those with chronic heart and lung conditions, said deputy provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

"We want people to be aware that these conditions may need them to slow down and take some extra precautions, and we really encourage people to check on each other, particularly elderly family members or neighbours who may not be able to get out, who may not have access to cooler areas or clean air," Henry said. "Know where to find shelter if you need it, keep hydrated... making sure that people who have chronic conditions have your medications with you, make sure you take them when you're outside, have a plan for what to do if your rescue medications aren't working and know where to go for help."

When it comes to outdoor activity, Henry said that for most healthy people it comes down to personal choice.

"Some people will be more affected by it than others, and so we say use some common sense," she said. "If you're not feeling well, if you're short of breath, if it's irritating, if it makes you cough, then take your physical activity indoors, and for people who have chronic conditions like asthma or other heart and lung conditions, maybe look at doing your physical activity indoors rather than outdoors, and take extra precautions with the smoke that we're seeing."