Tag Archives: AWARE

Whistler Wildfire History, 1919-1999

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.

claire ruddy wildfire

Just a few days after the community forum on wildfire hazards, A lightning storm sparked several small wildfires in the Sea-to-Sky corridor, including this one on the southwest slopes of Whistler Mountain. Photo: Claire Ruddy.

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.


Water bombers fighting wildfire on Blackcomb Mountain, August 2009. Courtesy cbc.ca

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.

Building AWAREness

Great news for local green-minded folk. In the run up to their forthcoming 25th anniversary, local environmental group AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment) has some exciting announcements to make.

As a recent AWARE release stated:

AWARE has traditionally been a volunteer-run organization and as such has faced the challenges shared by many similar organizations… Now on the eve of the 25th year the group is not only still going but has a fully active board of directors and has this month fulfilled a long-term aspiration of hiring an Executive Director.

Last month Claire Ruddy, who has long been involved on the AWARE board, was  hired as the new Executive Director. The board revival and new executive director means that leading into their 25th anniversary, AWARE is now able to take on and deliver more ambitious projects. As Claire Ruddy highlighted “this is a very exciting time to be a part of AWARE and with the 25th Anniversary year coming up we are trying to create lots of opportunities for people to get involved.”

Over the past 24 years AWARE has been a key player in the protection of wildlife habitat, education and awareness raising relating to the environment and sustainability as well as advocating for the environment.  Last year AWARE was able to expand the local debate around old forest logging in Whistler through holding an Old Forest Symposium with guest experts and a field trip to the Ancient Cedars.  A tree age study carried out by the group also found Whistlers oldest tree on record.  This year tree coring work continues and AWARE has started new projects such as starting a Zero Waste Station at the Whistler Farmers Markets to help educate around the issue of composting.

A recent AWARE gathering at the Ancient Cedars.

A recent AWARE gathering at the Ancient Cedars.

They have also been holding regular Green Talks at the Whistler Museum to promote awareness of pertinent environmental issues. Two upcoming events provide a great opportunity for interested individuals to learn more about the rejuvenated organization, its future direction, and the many ways to get involved.

First, on Wednesday  September 4th from 6-8pm a Green Talk will be held at the Whistler Museum, focusing on the presentation of AWARE’s new long-term strategic plan. 

Then, on Wednesday October 2nd, 6-8pm, again at the Whistler Museum, AWARE will be holding it’s annual general meeting, where new board members can be voted in and the group can continue to build its capacity.

If you can’t make the meeting but want more info please email info@awarewhistler.org.

Green Talks, July 3rd: Is Waste Incineration in our Future?

Is a waste-to-energy incineration plant, like this one in Burnaby, in the Sea-to-Sky's future?

Is a waste-to-energy incineration plant, like this one in Burnaby, in the Sea-to-Sky’s future?

Energy, waste, recycling, land-use planning, carbon emissions, air quality, climate change… The topic of producing electricity through burning our garbage touches on many of the key environmental issues of our time. Not surprisingly, it is also quite polarizing.

There is significant movement surrounding the potential of bringing a waste incineration plant to the Sea-to-Sky (click on the photo above to link through to a relevant newspaper article).

Should we embrace this as an opportunity to produce sustainable, quasi-renewable energy? Or should we fight like hell to protect the air we breathe? IPPs and asphalt plants have already proven that these are two hot-button concerns for our region. So naturally, one should be as informed as possible.

Come on down to the Whistler Museum on Wednesday, July 3rd for the latest installment of the bi-monthly Green Talks series, organized by AWARE. The FREE talk features local environmental professional Sue Maxwell, and promises to be important, informative, and most likely contentious as well. Afterwards, everyone is encouraged to join AWARE regulars for a round of Green Drinks at Black’s Pub.

When: Wednesday, July 3rd, 6:30pm – 8:00pm

Where: Whistler Museum (4333 Main Street, behind the library)

How Much: FREE (donations to AWARE encouraged)

Why: Because it’s important!!!! 

Presenter’s Bio: Sue Maxwell is the principal of Ecoinspire. She holds an MA degree in Environment and Management from Royal Roads University with a thesis topic of Zero Waste, as well as a B. Sc. In collaboration with teams, she has developed the program plans for the first phase of the LightRecycle fluorescent lamp stewardship program and Unplugged, the small appliance recycling program and seen them through to program implementation on time and on budget. A thorough understanding of EPR in BC is complemented by knowledge of waste reduction programs and experience implementing recycling and composting programs within the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority. She co-authored Closing the Loop –Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Creating Green Jobs Through Zero Waste in BC and recently she was part of a team with EBA developing a Zero Waste Strategy for the Resort Municipality of Whistler. She is a Whistler resident and has gained a solid understanding of the local solid waste system through volunteering on the Whistler 2020 Materials and Solid Waste Task Force, the Whistler Official Community Plan Community Advisory Group and the Squamish Lillooet Regional District Plan Monitoring Advisory Committee. Other volunteer roles have been on the Board of the Recycling Council of BC and its policy committee, and with various Zero Waste and sustainability projects. She has also taken courses in the Natural Step (Level I) and Community Based Social Marketing (basic and advanced).

Green Talks: Learn all about growing food in Whistler

On May 1st, in partnership with the Association for Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE) we will launch a new event series at the museum: GREEN TALKS. Occurring the first Wednesday of every 2nd month, we will feature an evening presentation on a selected environmental topic. Coming up first:


With a growing awareness of the impacts our food choices make on the environment, AWARE (the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment) is focusing it’s upcoming Green Talk on one of the lowest impact food production methods, growing food in your own backyard.

Myrtle Philip's veggie garden that kept Rainbow Lodge guests happy.
Myrtle Philip’s veggie garden that kept Rainbow Lodge guests happy.

Guest speakers will be talking specifically about growing food in Whistler, with respect to the challenges resident food lovers may face. A major challenge for growing our own food is Whistler’s short growing season. As well, there are spatial challenges such as not having a traditional yard space, limited sunlight or strata constraints. Presentations and the ensuing discussion will talk about how growing food in containers, vertically or inside may help to meet some of these challenges. Attendees will also learn about which plants grow well together and which do not, as well as things we should avoid growing so as not to attract bears.

Simone McIsaac of Root Down Farm, one of the guest speakers at the event, highlights “we do a lot to bring local food to Whistler by taking part in the Farmers Market and our Harvest Boxes but we tell people that the best thing they can do is grow their own. Fruit and vegetables taste the best when they have just been picked from the garden.”

Green Talks are hosted in partnership with the Whistler Museum on the first Wednesday of every odd numbered month, 6pm-8pm. Each Green Talk focuses on a different environmental topic and the May 1st meeting represents the last event in a string of local Earth Day celebrations.

Media Contact: Claire Ruddy, AWARE President
604 966 7806 / c_ruddy [at ]@yahoo [dot] com

AWARE Contact details:
info [at] awarewhistler [dot] org
Facebook: AWARE Whistler

When: Wednesday May 1st, 6-8pm
Where: Whistler Museum
Tickets: Free! (donations to AWARE are appreciated)

Whistler’s Environmental History part 3: Olympic Ambitions

Around the same time that environmental activists were fighting to save old-growth forest in the upper Elaho Valley, AWARE’s leadership was fighting its own battle to bring some sort of focus and coherence to the organization. According to a June 15, 2000 article in the Pique, at one AWARE meeting more than 50 different environmental issues that had been raised as concerns by members. Voting was undertaken to identify key priorities, with resolving the Elaho conflict, continuing to protect Whistler’s wetland, and further involvement in regional land-management processes identified as key concerns. More than anything it seems, core members wanted the group to return to its pro-active roots, offering solutions (like recycling) rather than simply identifying problems. 

A few years later, as with everything in Whistler, things got a little sidetracked by a little announcement in July 2003. Once again, AWARE’s organizational strategies were forced to respond to broad changes in Whistler’s economic and political landscape. With the coming of the Olympics, and the potential for major infrastructure expansion yet again, AWARE set about ensuring any development was as environmentally sound as possible, while leveraging the push for Olympic legacies to get more important habitat set aside.

The cover of a multi-page pamphlet promoting Olympics-related wilderness conservation, produced by AWARE.

The cover of a multi-page pamphlet promoting Olympics-related wilderness conservation, produced by AWARE.

These efforts led to major protected areas in the upper Callaghan and Soo Valleys. Today, while opinions on the overall Olympic Legacy are mixed, in his recent Speaker Series Ken had this to say:

Now, in a post-Olympic Whistler, AWARE has returned its focus to wetlands conservation (for example, the Zen Lands), old-growth forests and logging, and education.

On this last point, the Whistler Museum is excited to announce a new partner program with AWARE to help disseminate environmental ideas and discussion throughout the community. Starting Wednesday May 1st, and continuing the first Wednesday of every second month after that, we will be hosting “Green Talks.” These will be evening presentations on any and all environmentally themed topics. The first Green Talks will be all about growing food in Whistler: what to plant for our wet, mountain climate, how to grow it, and how to eat it!

Green Talks will provide the Whistler community with an excellent opportunity to stay informed of the latest environmental news and initiatives, meet like-minded environmental enthusiasts, get involved in important one of Whistler’s longest-standing community organizations, and, of course, hang out at the Whistler Museum! Stay tuned for more details soon.

This is just the latest initiative in a 25-year run for AWARE, making Whistler a greener, healthier, and happier place. We hope to see you there! For more info on AWARE, check out awarewhistler.org

Bringing the environment into the mainstream: Ken Melamed, AWARE in the 1990s

Ken photo 1

Last week we wrote a post about the early history of local environmental group AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment). We wrote the piece, in part, to promote this month’s Speaker Series featuring long-time environmentalist, former AWARE president, and former Whistler mayor Ken Melamed. Well, last Wednesday Ken delivered some great insights into the history of local environmental movements in the Whistler Valley, so we’ll follow up with some more AWARE history.

One of the great things about Ken’s talk was the broad perspective he brought and his insights into the political processes that informed the development of the Whistler Valley over the years. As a dedicated grassroots environmentalist and a successful politician, he was able to provide excellent context for why specific project and initiatives went forward while others were stopped.

First, lets’ go to Ken, and hear his explanation of one of the key turning points in our valley’s environmental history in the early 1990s:

One lesson he made very clear in the question and discussion session at the end of the night, was “It is always better to be at the table.” What he meant by this was, though it might entail challenging and discouraging compromise, you can always have more influence when you are involved in top-level discussions. Once Ken was elected to municipal council in 1996, he could be far more effective in trying to ensure environmental protection went hand-in-hand with the valley’s continued development.

One such victory was the protection of the Emerald Forest in 1997. Ken expressed disappointment with the compromise which led to some development of the sensitive wetlands, and feels that they could have gone into the development bargaining more aggressively than they did, he still is proud of the fact that only a few acres of the roughly 140-acre parcel were developed. If the original plan to develop the entire area had gone through, Ken asserted, “it would have been an environmental catastrophe.”

As Ken and council started to get serious about habitat conservation and putting intelligent controls on rampant development, AWARE became entangled in its most contentious campaign to date. The story is too long, twisted, and involving to fully recount here, but essentially, major protests sprung up in opposition to the logging of newly discovered old-growth stands in the upper Elaho Valley. Some of the Douglas Firs were estimated at 1300 years old! The activists (from both AWARE and the Western Canada Wilderness Committee) were dedicated to preserving these ancient stands, but some of the loggers were just as dedicated to doing their jobs. Things turned ugly, and violent clashes at logging road blockades actually led to jail time for some of the worst perpetrators. Despite the ugliness (perhaps, in part, because of it), today, the old-growth stands are protected, as well as recognized as a Squamish Nation Wild Spirit Place.

For a more detailed account of the story, read local biologist Bob Brett’s take on the Elaho Old Growth forests from June 2000.

At the same time, AWARE was becoming stretched too thin by the Elaho campaign, and numerous other interests that its membership was pursuing. It was time to take stock of the situation…

AWARE.: definitely not a WASTE

With Ken Melamed’s  upcoming speaker series on the history of habitat conservation in the Whistler Valley, we figured it was an opportune time to look into the history of AWARE (Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment) the local environmental advocacy group that Ken played a formative role in during the 1990s.

AWARE’s origins cold not be any more grassroots; in October 1988 Michelle Bush (still in Whistler today, best known as a  Village Host and as a stage actor/performing artist) was ankle deep in junk mail at the post office, and couldn’t believe that pristine BC forests were being cut down just to create this waste. Instead of shrugging it off, Michelle placed a classified ad inviting anyone and everyone who was similarly fed up.

Roughly 15 people showed up at Citta’s that autumn day to talk about the lack of recycling in Whistler, and to figure out a solution.  They realized pretty quickly that they were going to need a name for their fledgling group. Two witty acronyms were considered: “Whistler Association to Save The Environment” had a nice ring to it, but the acronym WASTE was too negative sounding, so they opted for AWARE.

Fitzsimmons Creek is one of several important habitat areas in the Whistler Valley, protected thanks to AWARE's environmental advocacy. Bob Brett photo.

Fitzsimmons Creek is one of several important habitat areas in the Whistler Valley, protected thanks to AWARE’s environmental advocacy. Bob Brett photo.

An Earth Day fundraiser was organized for that April (a band named Zumac headlined) and the money raised went towards a municipal waste management study. It took some effort convincing the more “old school” administrators at muni hall, but, with the help of now-retired municipal official Cliff Jennings (who was part of the original AWARE group but had to back out due to conflict of interest with his muni position), Whistler’s first municipal recycling system came on board through the early 1990s.

In 1990 Ken Melamed became AWARE’s president, and with the success of its recycling campaign, the organization’s focus shifted to habitat conservation. Coinciding with North American economic recovery starting in the late 1980s, this period saw another boom cycle of development in the valley. Vancouver-based Intrawest entered the Whistler scene, Upper Village was built, and development proposals were expanding throughout the valley.

And thus, AWARE took it upon themselves to act as stewards of our valley’s important wildlife habitat and sensitive ecosystems. It was these prominent environmental campaigns that helped lead Ken (and others) into an even more prominent role in local politics as a councillor and later mayor. But we’ll let Ken tell that part of the story.

Make sure to pick up tickets before this sells event out, it promises to be a compelling and informative presentation. We’ll check back in next Saturday with a recap of Ken’s talk, and we’ll continue this story with some of AWARE’s more recent work.

Mar 2013 SS Poster-small


When: Wednesday, March 20th; Doors at 6pm, show 7pm-9pm
Where: Whistler Museum
Who: 19+
Cost: $7 regular price, $5 for museum members

To purchase tickets (seating is limited), call the Whistler Museum at 604.932.2019, or visit us at 4333 Main Street, just behind the library.

There will be a cash bar featuring the Whistler Brewing Company and Jackson Triggs Wines, as well as complimentary coffee served courtesy of the Whistler Roasting Company and teas from Namasthé.