Tag Archives: wildfires

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.

bc-090730-cj-blackcomb-fire-plane-306

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?

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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.

Whistler’s Wildfire Past: Alpine Meadows is Burning

The arrival of summer (especially the summer-like weather we are currently enjoying) is universally admired, but with it comes the increased risk of wildfires. Despite our relatively wet climate, fire season is a reality in Whistler. A great deal of our valley has burned within the last century alone.

Throughout this summer we will share a series of stories about the history of wildfires in our region, making use of the remarkable amount of information that has been assembled through the Whistler Forest History Project. Through these stories we hope to provide a better understanding of the active role that wildfires have played in shaping our valley.

All of the wildfires in the Whistler Forest History database.

All of the wildfires in the Whistler Forest History database. You may notice the absence of the recent high-profile fires on Blackcomb Mountain. Those have not yet been added to the Forest History Database, but we’ll discuss those fires in detail in a future post.

First off, we’ll start with two photos taken by Myrtle Philip that are now in our archives. Looking northward from Rainbow Lodge, the images portray massive columns of smoke billowing up from the lower east flank of Rainbow Mountain,  approximately where Alpine Meadows is today.

Alpine Meadows wildfire1 - ACCESS WMA_P86_0688B_Philip

Alpine Meadows wildfire2 - ACCESS WMA_P86_0688B_Philip

Quite the raging fire. As is the case with many of our archival photos, especially our older ones, we have limited information about the image. By the time the Whistler Museum formally acquired the few thousand photographs in the Philip collection in the 1980s, memories were already fading, and only sparse details could be recorded for most acquisitions. We knew this photo was taken from Rainbow Lodge, likely mid-1920s to to 1940s, but that’s about it.

Now that the Forest History Project has compiled a comprehensive database of virtually every large forest disturbance (logging, wildfires, urbanization and other development, etc), using a combination of historical aerial survey photographs, Forest Service records, and other archival research, we have the opportunity to get a bit more of the story behind the photos.

The database isn’t 100% complete, but it’s virtually certain that a wildfire as large as appears in the above photos was not missed. Plotting only the wildfires in the database into Google Earth, then zooming in on the Alpine Meadows region, we get this:

Wildfire history of the Alpine Meadows area since 1914.

Wildfire history of the Alpine Meadows area since 1914.

Judging by the Rainbow Lodge buildings in the photo, as well as the location of the smoke, it’s probably not the 1920 fire (burning roughly on the flats where Mons and Nicklaus North lie today). That leaves 1940 or 1943 as possible dates for the photos.

So we’ve managed to add a bit more background info for some archival images, but more interestingly, those are pretty massive fires, right where Whistler’s largest residential neighbourhood sits today! The 1940 fire in particular covers more than 3 square kilometres of terrain, encompassing the entirety of Alpine Meadows and Rainbow.

It is easy to take for granted the protection we are afforded by a modern wildfire management service, but these images demonstrate just how common large fires such as these would be in this valley without human intervention.

In future wildfire-related blog posts we’ll look at the effects of lightning strikes in triggering fires, and recount the massive 1919 Cheakamus Canyon fire (the massive brown splotch near the bottom of the first image) that took out several PGE railway bridges, leaving Rainbow Lodge isolated for several months before they were re-built.

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FYI: As of Friday afternoon our wildfire hazard rating is 3 out of 5, or “moderate.” A moderate rating is characterized as “forest fuels are drying and there is an increased risk of surface fires starting. Carry out any forest activities with caution.” 

Practically speaking, this means that there no major changes to restrictions on outdoor fires (these come at level 4, “high”), but the risk of human-caused wildfires spreading out of control is certainly present. Our current wildfire danger rating can be found on the BC Wildfire Management Branch’s website (on this comprehensive list for the coastal fire section, Whistler’s rating is listed under “Blackcomb Base”).