Tag Archives: climate

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.

Whistler Under Ice: A Look at the Glaciation Effects on Whistler

Earlier this year, Sarah (Executive Director and Curator) and I (Assistant Archivist Trish, here!) went on a ziptrekking adventure. As the wonderfully informative guides toured us around the heights of Fitzsimmons Creek, one of them began explaining how the last Ice Age affected the mountainous terrain that we know and love today.

Immediately intrigued I decided to dig a little deeper into the geology of Whistler – most enchantingly, the effects of glaciation on our town. In short, ice sheets and glaciers are vastly recognizable within Whistler’s topography, as they have essentially shaped our entire landscape. From quarrying out the alpine basins we ski in to producing the series of ridges that define our skyline, ice sheets and glaciers are the key culprits to the rocky grounds and heights we’ve become so familiar with.

Whistler's oldest rocks are found on Fissile Peak

Whistler’s oldest rocks are found on Fissile Peak

Whistler Bowl, West Bowl, Horstman Glacier Bowl, Harmony and Symphony Basins have all been molded into their present states by glaciers that have plucked at the bedrock, while carrying and grinding loose fragments into smaller pieces with the movement of ice sheets. The bowls were all created during the initial stages of the build-up of the Cordilleran ice sheet. The Cordilleran ice sheet periodically covered large parts of North America (including British Columbia) during glacial periods over the last 2.6 million years. Approximately 15,000 years ago, it covered all but the highest peaks of Whistler.

Noticeably, mountain peaks in Whistler range from jagged to more rounded. These physical traits are so interesting in that they can identify the height of the Cordilleran ice sheet. Essentially, a peak that is jagged was above sheet level, whereas more rounded peaks are so because they were under ice. This is endlessly fascinating as you can scan Whistler’s landscape and notice each peak, visualizing the height of the ice that once covered our land.

Blackcomb from Whistler Bowl.

Blackcomb from Whistler Bowl.

A prime example of the ice sheet elevation levels is evident when comparing Whistler Mountain to Blackcomb Mountain. Plucked features and striations (effects of glaciation) can be found on the summit of Whistler Mountain (2160m) but not above the Horstman Hut (2252m) on Blackcomb Mountain (2437m). Therefore, the surface of the ice in this area was likely just below Horstman Hut.

Next time you’re wandering about in the valley or ascending in a gondola up Whistler or Blackcomb Mountain, imagine how Whistler would have looked 15,000 years ago. Imagine our ice-filled valley and our jagged mountain peaks peering out from under a massive sheet of ice, while large glaciers pluck at bedrock and carry pieces to new terrain.

1973 aerial of Wedgemount Glacier terminus in lake basin. The trimline marks the former extent of the glaciers circa 1895, with various stages of recession also marked. Interpretation by Karl Ricker.

1973 aerial of Wedgemount Glacier terminus in lake basin. The trimline marks the former extent of the glaciers circa 1895, with various stages of recession also marked. Interpretation by Karl Ricker.

For an excellent resource on the geology of Whistler, visit http://www.whistlernaturalists.ca/