‘A wake-up’: Whistler, B.C., known for its snow, to start wildfire drills

Click to play video: 'Whistler prepares for wildfire season'
Whistler prepares for wildfire season
Whistler has witnessed the devastation wildfires can cause - and is ramping up efforts to prevent the "unthinkable" from happening in the resort community. Cassidy Mosconi now with the efforts to protect one of B.C.'s most popular tourist destinations – Apr 4, 2024

It’s a community best known for its snow, but later this month Whistler, B.C., will be running an emergency simulation for a threat that’s becoming ever more present: fire.

First responders will be running an emergency evacuation drill on April 18, part of the resort community’s recent Community Wildfire Resiliency Plan as drought and climate change continue to intensify fire behaviour and the threat to life it presents.

“Whistler is in the trees, we live in the forest, so it’s a real priority for us to understand risk and then do everything in our power to ensure we are prepared,” Mayor Jack Crompton told Global News on Thursday.

Click to play video: 'Whistler’s wildfire defence plan'
Whistler’s wildfire defence plan

The community has been implementing recommendations from a recent report into wildfire preparedness, which includes a recognition that Highway 99 is the only way in and out of the community. Whistler has become an early adopter of implementing evacuation and defence plans for individual neighbourhoods to help streamline its emergency response.

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“We will be working the plan. We will be practising it. This is the first of many opportunities for our communities to learn about these plans and make them more resilient and robust over time,” Crompton said.

“We are pleased with the plan we have established but we just cannot afford to take our eye off the ball, we need to continue to be committed to improving every day so we are prepared when an event happens.”

Click to play video: 'New dedicated wildfire training and education centre in Kamloops'
New dedicated wildfire training and education centre in Kamloops

Residents are also being included in wildfire preparedness plans, with a heavy focus on education and encouragement to FireSmart their properties.

The FireSmart approach involves managing properties to eliminate potential fuel sources and clear areas around homes so as to starve possible fires of attack vectors.

It’s an approach former Olympic skier and 42-year Whistler resident Rob Boyd has taken to heart.

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“The last few summers have certainly been stark reminders of what could happen,” Boyd said, referencing a frantic effort to prepare his family cabin near Gun Lake during the 2023 season.

“I was running around frantically with my son to help FireSmart the place, cutting branches, climbing way up higher, moving any trees close to the cabin and setting up sprinkler systems, so it was really a wake-up for me to the dangers.”

Boyd’s cabin was spared, but dozens of other owners in the area weren’t so lucky and saw their properties razed to the ground as fire behaviour that was unheard of a generation ago swept through the area.

Click to play video: 'Rare ‘fire tornado’ filmed amid B.C. wildfires'
Rare ‘fire tornado’ filmed amid B.C. wildfires

Boyd said locals in Whistler are taking the threat seriously, and have been aggressive about preparing their properties for the possibility of fire.

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His own strata, he said, holds an annual FireSmart week where they bring in a large communal dumpster and trim back trees, clear out dead leaves and branches and work to make sure there is no fuel adjacent to their homes.

Boyd’s home is one of more than 350 Whistler dwellings that have undergone FireSmart assessments since 2016, but the community of nearly 14,000 needs that number to climb far higher.

It’s the type of work that becomes even more important as the province’s wildfires show signs of getting bigger, hotter and more aggressive — like those that hit West Kelowna and Kelowna last August.

“The behaviour of fires we are seeing is not the same as historic behaviour, this is something that firefighters underlined over and over again,” Premier David Eby said at an event Thursday announcing a new wildfire training centre in Kamloops.

“There were homes on the other side of a massive lake where embers should not have been travelling under historic fire behaviours, and the embers were travelling right across the lake and setting fires on the other side of the water.

“Homeowners that were a significant distance from any forest area who would not have thought their forests were at risk from wildfire were definitely at risk.”

Click to play video: '2024 B.C. wildfire season has started'
2024 B.C. wildfire season has started

In Whistler, the upcoming drill — the first since the 2010 Winter Olympics — is just one among 53 recommendations the municipality is working to implement.

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Whistler has also changed bylaws and secured new equipment and training that will see general municipal staff undergo a basic wildfire course.

“We’re investing a tremendous amount in mitigating the risk so we can do everything in our power to lower the risk of an event,” Crompton said.

“Doing this work well is not cheap.”

While prevention work comes at a price, officials believe it’s money well spent and will pale in comparison to the cost of a disaster.

The province spent an estimated $1 billion fighting fires during last year’s record season.

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