Crews work to fireproof Whistler before catastrophe hits

Whistler, B.C., is considered at high risk for forest fires, so with images of the devastation in Fort McMurray still fresh, fire ecology consultant Bruce Blackwell is leading a push to fireproof the community.

Wildfire experts urge investment in fire mitigation efforts now to offer protection from future blazes

Crews are trying to create a fire buffer in Whistler's Brio area by clearing out trees and brush. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

No one in Whistler wants to be another Fort McMurray. 

The heavily forested resort community in British Columbia is considered at high risk for forest fires, and so with images of the northern Alberta devastation fresh, Bruce Blackwell is leading a push to fireproof the community.

"Fort McMurray is not unique," said Blackwell, a fire ecology consultant who's been hired by the municipality to plan the defence against a catastrophic wildfire.

Forest fire protection consultant Bruce Blackwell tells the CBC's Chris Brown about protecting Whistler from devastating fires like Fort McMurray's. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

His crews are at work this week in the Brio neighbourhood on the slopes of Whistler mountain, just a few minutes from the village centre.

"What we're really trying to do is create a buffer," he said as a contracting team cut down trees and thinned out the overgrown brush.

"If we have this break right up against homes, we've got protection from a fire coming down the mountain."

Worryingly similar

To Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, the parallels with Fort McMurray are worrying.

"We've got some similarities. There's only one road in and out to Whistler. We are an important economic engine to the province — if something like that happened here, it would be devastating."

Many homes in Whistler are completely surrounded by dense forest. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Since 2004, the resort municipality has been going from neighbourhood to neighbourhood tackling fire mitigation work.

"It used to be hard to convince taxpayers that fire-smarting made sense," said Wilhelm-Morden.

"But we don't have that problem these days."

Whistler's Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden says her community shares many severe fire risks with Fort McMurray. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

The area has had some close calls. In 2009, a spectacular fire on the top of Blackcomb Mountain fortunately burned away from the resort.

And last year, a huge fire 50 kilometers away in the nearby Elaho valley shrouded Whistler in smoke, but didn't cause any damage.

B.C. Liberals under fire

The roughly $500,000 being spent in Whistler this spring comes from the municipality as well as a B.C. government fund that supports fire mitigation work.

But critics say the amount of money on offer from the province — roughly $8 million a year — amounts to a tiny drop in the firefighting bucket compared to what's needed.

B.C. NDP MLA Harry Bains is pressuring the provincial government to put more money into wildfire mitigation work. (CBC)

"After a decade of neglect, just 10 per cent of that work [fire mitigation] that was considered high risk has been done," NDP MLA Harry Bains told the B.C. legislature this week, as he challenged Premier Christy Clark's Liberal government to ante up more cash.

Those who study forest fires argue even as they've grown in frequency and intensity, governments have yet to fully grasp the full economic consequences of the damage they cause.

The provincial and municipal governments are spending about half a million dollars on wildfire mitigation in Whistler this spring. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

Treat fires like earthquakes

"We need to start to look at wildfires as floods, tornados or earthquakes," said Robert Gray, who like Blackwell is a fire ecology consultant.

"We need to put them in the same natural disaster category and fund mitigation in the same way. We don't do that now."

Two years ago, Gray said, the B.C. provincial and federal governments combined to spend $75 million on flood mitigation, but he claims only $5 million was spent on fire mitigation.

A wildfire near the top of Blackcomb Mountain in July 2009 burned away from the resort. (Greg Norgaard)
     

Costs vastly underestimated

 A 2015 report Gray co-authored analyzes the cost of several U.S. fires from the past decade. It concluded after adding in the costs of suppression as well as the indirect costs of lost business and other long term implications, the true cost of forest fires can be up to 30 times official estimates.

The municipality of Whistler has been going neighbourhood to neighbourhood doing fire mitigation work since 2004. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

"We're going to see more expensive fires and it's going to have a trickle-down effect on the economy," said Gray.

"We're all going to start feeling the pain if we don't get ahead of this problem."

Whistler is one of the more pro-active B.C. communities for fire prevention. Still, even with the work being done around the Brio neighbourhood this spring, mitigation is a laborious process.

The primary tree-falling machine broke down just before CBC News visited and contractors said it could take a day to fix it.

Those delays matter. Just one neighbourhood per year can be tackled in the short time between when the snow melts and when it becomes too hot and dangerous to be doing the thinning.

And at this rate, it will be at least another 20 to 30 years before all the Whistler neighbourhoods are fireproofed — and by then it's more than likely the community's fire defences will already have been put to the test.

Critics say the amount of money the provincial government is spending on mitigating wildfires falls far short of what's needed. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

About the Author

Chris Brown

Moscow Correspondent

Chris Brown is a foreign correspondent based in the CBC’s Moscow bureau. Previously a National Reporter in Vancouver, Chris has a passion for great stories and has travelled all over Canada and the world to find them.

With files from James Roberts

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