Last week the Whistler Museum was fortunate to participate in a community forum on wildfires organized by the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) and the Sea to Sky Clean Air Society. Officially titled “Our Future with Forest Fires – A Climate Action Symposium,” the event featured a series of expert speakers discussing various public health and safety concerns associated with wildfires, and how these concerns will evolve in the near future.
Topics discussed included the use of controlled burns to mitigate wildfire risk, the public health impacts of wildfire smoke (think back to last July), and the growing risk that wildfires pose to our neighbourhoods (and vice versa), and tourism economy.
One especially eye-catching comment came from Whistler fire chief Geoff Playfair, who noted that, as the climate continues to change, our wildfire season is growing at an average rate of roughly 2 days per year. Having worked at the local fire department for 30 years now, Playfair corroborated that the wildfire season is roughly 2 months longer now than when he began his career.
Our contribution was a timelapse video showing the extent of wildfires in the Whistler area during the 20th century. The video was made using GIS data from the Whistler Forest History Project, a project that used aerial photographs, historical research and fieldwork, or “ground-truthing” to build a remarkably comprehensive record of natural an human disturbances to Whistler’s natural landscape over the last century.
Here’s the video:
First of all, the video makes it clear that there have been lots of wildfires over the years, and a significant portion of our valley burned in the last century. As well, while it may seem that burns are becoming smaller and less severe. This may be true, but the number of fires has held fairly steady. Sure, we’re getting better at controlling and mitigating wildfires in our region, but that doesn’t mean that a large, devastating, and potentially dangerous wildfire in Whistler couldn’t happen again.
It should also be noted that this video only goes to 1999. Among the significant fires that have occurred in Whistler since then are at least 3 that occurred on the upper slopes of Blackcomb, imperilling ski-lift infrastructure. You can actually ride through several of these burnt forests today, serving as aesthetically pleasing but no less sobering reminders of the continued risk of wildfire.
All of this theoretical discussion was made all the more real when just a few days later, lightning strikes from an intense thunderstorm triggered multiple fires in the Whistler & Pemberton area. The largest fire, on the southwest slopes of Whistler Mountain, just outside the ski area, required aerial water bombing to get it under control before it became threatening to nearby developments and infrastructure.
To learn more about the risk of wildfires, and practical steps you can take to protect yourself, your property, and our community, please visit our local Firesmart website.