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Wildfire risk increasing for Whistler

Dry, hot weather keeps pressure on resort to be vigilant when it comes to fire

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Report after report suggests that the biggest natural disaster risk for the Resort Municipality of Whistler is fire, and that risk is growing as trees mature, forests fill up with wood fuel and developments extend further into the forest interface. When the forest fire hazard rating hits extreme, as it did last week, it's a serious concern.

"Everybody needs to be very, very careful with what they're doing in the great outdoors," said fire chief Rob Whitton. "Enjoy the scenery, but be very cognizant of where you are."

In recent weeks Whistler Fire Rescue Service has attended seven brush fires in the past few weeks, most of them started by improperly disposed of smoking materials. As well, Whistler Fire Rescue Services is regularly called to attend backyard fires, which are now banned through the resort without a permit — and no permits will be given out with the fire hazard rated at extreme. Burning without a permit carries a $500 fine.

Whistler Fire Rescue Services is currently posting signs around the resort about fire risk, and this week posted signs at trailheads and at the entrance to every neighbourhood to warn people about the conditions.

"We're trying to get the word out with newspaper ads, ads on CTV, and we're also doing inspections around construction sites to make sure everybody is playing by the rules," said Whitton.

It's possible, he said, that Crown land could soon be closed to the public, something that happened during a severe drought in 2003.

"I'd hate to second guess the provincial government and we take our lead from them, but if this continues much (longer), given the state through the entire province, I'm leaning towards seeing (closures) sooner than later. The potential is there," said Whitton.

While there is a little rain forecast in the next few days it also comes with thundershowers and the risk of lightning strikes. The rain is unlikely to help much as it would take several days of rain and cooler temperatures to lower the fire hazard rating from "Extreme," and the hazard level would have to be rated "High" for three days for construction crews to resume limited work in the interface again.

The fire hazard rating stops work within 10 metres of the forest interface. Everything from house construction in the valley to lift construction on Whistler Blackcomb is being impacted by the fire hazard.

In discussing the risks to Whistler, Whitton recently shared a report by the Western Silvicultural Contractors' Association that suggested that while 98 per cent of forest fires are extinguished the other two per cent are responsible for 80 to 90 per cent of reported wildfire financial losses.

As well, the fires themselves are becoming worse, and some can only be put out by wet weather and the arrival winter. Yet there has been an increase in demand for fire suppression at a time when suppression is becoming less effective.

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