Tag Archives: Whistler Forest History Project

Whistler Forest History Project

A few weeks ago we posted about Whistler’s Wildfire History. That post included a time-lapse video that showed the impacts of wildfires on the regional landscape, by decade. The video was produced using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data that had been compiled by the Whistler Forest History Project (WFHP), and we figured that we might as well dedicate a whole post to the WFHP, explaining in more detail what this really important initiative was all about.


The Parkhurst logging settlement on Green Lake was one of the largest forestry operation in the history of the Whistler Valley.

The WFHP was a project undertaken to develop a comprehensive understanding of landscape change in the Whistler Valley since 1914, from causes such as logging, urbanization, wildfires, and more. Using aerial photographs, historical maps, archival sources, oral interviews, and more, a GIS database tracking this landscape change was produced thanks to the extensive volunteer efforts of three Whistler residents and professional foresters: Don MacLaurin, RPF ret., Peter Ackhurst, RPF and John Hammons, RPF, ret. The project was administered by the Forest History Association of British Columbia and the Whistler Museum, and funding was generously provided by the Community Foundation of Whistler’s Environmental Legacy Fund.


Here’s a short video summarizing their work and their findings:

This information provides important information for environmental and planning professionals, as well as serving broader educational purposes for the general public about landscape change. We’ve already used it as the basis of a few blog posts and research projects, and will continue to do so in the future.

Next time you walk through the woods, try to guess the age of the trees you are walking past, and reconstruct the history of the forest!


Using the information in the WFHP database, we were able to discover that this undated photo was from the early 1940s.

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’s Wildfire Past, part 2: Burned into the Landscape’s Memory

The Coast Mountain landscape is full of stories. You just need to know how to read them. The grandest of these tales recount violent clashes between volcanic lava and glacial ice, expressed through landforms such as the Table, the Barrier, and Black Tusk in Garibaldi Park. If you know what to look for, however, there are plenty of signs of past wildlife activity to be identified from our surroundings as well.

Our mountain environment is highly varied so it is difficult to characterize our region’s wildfire activity too specifically. Generally speaking, however, the average wildfire interval for coastal forests is 750 years. This means that any given point in a coastal landscape is prone to burn, on average, every 750 years.

Major wildfires in the Whistler region from the last 100 years. The large purple blotch at the top right represents the 1926 Soo/Green fire.

Major wildfires in the Whistler region from the last 100 years. The large purple blotch at the top right represents the 1926 Soo/Green fire.

In the Whistler Valley, like most other populated valleys, the incidence of wildfires actually increased during the 20th century due to the large number of human-caused fires, especially those caused by railway activity. (Check out this blog post for some cool insights into railway fire suppression in the 1940s, not to mention Rainbow Lodge booze runs and the dangers of playing chicken with a freight train).

The point being, at any point in time, large swaths of our our forests are in the process of recovering after a wildfire disturbance. Fire is an essential aspect of the life cycle of the Douglas Fir, the dominant tree species in our Coast Mountain valleys. They thrive under direct sunlight and grow fast and straight, allowing them to grow quickly after wildfires and clearcuts. They also have extra thick bark that acts like an armour against flame. This last point is crucial.

Even if only a handful of Douglas Firs survive a wildfire, these “resids” (short for residuals) are well-situated to re-seed the disturbed area and kickstart the forest’s regeneration. A few decades after a large wildfire, you will often find a few scattered, mature douglas firs surrounded by a  uniform forest of younger growth.

Heading north from Whistler on Highway 99, just before the Soo Valley turnoff, you can clearly see some trees that stand well above the rest of the forest. They are a few of the survivors of a massive wildfire from the mid-1920s that destroyed much of the surrounding forest.

Heading north from Whistler, just before the Soo Valley turnoff, you can clearly see some trees that stand well above the rest of the forest. They are a few of the survivors of a massive forest fire from the mid-1920s, that destroyed much of the surrounding slopes. these few survivors would have provided the seeds to regenerate the forest that has returned to the burned area.

A handful of “resids” stand head and shoulders above the regenerating forest that they helped re-seed.

Checking back in with our wildfire data from the Whistler Forest History Project, there was a massive wildfire around the junction of the Soo River with the Green River in 1926. To fully appreciate a fire of this scale, you need a bird’s-eye view. Luckily enough, there is a lookout  up the Soo Valley Forest Service Road that was designed with just this purpose in mind.

the llower cluster is on the banks of the Soo River, which is hidden from view.

The view from the lookout. 3 clusters of Douglas Firs that survived the 1926 wildfire are are easily identified. They are substantially taller and darker than the surrounding forest. The upper two clusters are located beside rock clearings on the periphery of the fire, while the lower cluster is on the banks of the Soo River, which is hidden from view. Highway 99 is visible at lower right.

From this higher perspective you can see a few more groupings of residual douglas firs. You can also get a sense of just how uniform the regenerated forest is, as the entire swath of burned forest was recolonised by seeds from a small number of trees over a short period of time.

Finally, looking across the highway at Mount Currie you can find the upper limits of this massive, historical fire. If the boundary lines were a bit straighter you might mistake them as the edges of old cutblocks.

nearly 90 years later, the upper limits of the wildfire are still plainly visible along the upper west flanks of Mount Currie.

Nearly 90 years later, the upper limits of the wildfire are still plainly visible along the upper west flanks of Mount Currie.

A close-up of the previous image.

A close-up of the previous image.

This is far from the only identifiable wildfire landscape in the area. Other prime spots are Cheakamus Canyon and Pemberton Meadows (Tenquille and the Camel Humps, specifically). Anywhere else?


Much thanks to Rod Allen of the Pemberton Fire Base, and John Hammons of the Whistler Forest History Project for their help with this series of posts about wildfire history. Check out part 1 here, with more instalments to come throughout the summer.