Lightning strikes started about 19 spot fires in the Whistler and Pemberton corridor on the weekend after a weather system rolled through the region, but all were attacked quickly and none grew larger than 0.3 hectares, B.C. Forest Service officials reported Monday (Aug. 2).
Mike McCulley, fire information officer for the Coastal Fire Centre, said 19 new fire starts have been noted and attacked through the corridor since Saturday afternoon's (July 31) storm. The lightning caused all of those fires, he said, and he expected more to be spotted and addressed in the area on Monday.
On Tuesday morning (Aug. 3), lightning struck again in the Pemberton area, McCulley said, and five smoke reports were called in from the upper Pemberton Meadows. Crews were carrying out initial attacks on those locations as of midday Tuesday, but early reports indicated they were all spot fires with no threat to houses or people, he added.
“We've got a fairly aggressive initial attack process” with crews working out of the Pemberton Fire Base, McCulley said. He noted Tuesday that there are more chances of lightning in the forecasts for today and Wednesday (Aug. 4).
McCulley said there were four lightning strikes on Blackcomb Mountain on Saturday, and firefighting crews worked with Whistler Blackcomb (WB) staff to attack the fire starts jointly and “keep them all fairly small and controlled.”
One of those strikes was about one kilometre up from the Village, McCulley said, but “no infrastructure was ever threatened.” He added that WB staff “did a phenomenal job” in the joint efforts.
Doug Forseth, WB's vice-president of operations, said four spot fires on Blackcomb involved one tree in one location, two trees in another and ground smoldering without flames in the other spots.
Saturday's lightning caused a shutdown of lifts on Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, following the routine procedure when lightning is spotted. Forseth said WB stopped uploading visitors as a monitor showed the lightning approaching, and he estimated that about 1,500 to 2,000 people were on the mountains when it was determined it was no longer safe to move people off the mountains by lift, around 3:30 p.m.
People were on Blackcomb and Whistler, including some hikers on Whistler's peak.
“We gathered them up as quickly as we could,” Forseth said, and most people were brought into the Roundhouse and Rendezvous lodges.
About 100 visitors needed to be transported off the mountains in vehicles due to pressing concerns such as flights to catch, but the majority of people came down on the lifts when they were running again, Forseth said. One of the spot fires on Blackcomb caused a slight delay in driving people down that mountain because it was “fairly close” to the summer road, he said, but as soon as it was confirmed to be clear all was in good shape.
“Most people are understanding that it's Mother Nature. We kept them out of harm's way,” Forseth said of guest reactions to Saturday's situation.
The sold-out evening barbecue had to be cancelled, but some of the food that was already prepared helped feed the lightning-stranded visitors, Forseth said.
A visitor held at Blackcomb's Rendezvous lodge during the lift shutdown reported that WB staff were “very gracious and helpful” while keeping guests informed and fed, and the lifts started running again around 6 p.m.
“The team worked really well together,” Forseth said.
McCulley said the fire starts in Pemberton have been “spread out through the valley,” but none of the fires in the Pemberton and Whistler corridor have threatened any houses.
Last summer saw the Pemberton Meadows menaced by the lightning-caused Copper Dome and Camel Back wildfires, which grew to be about 840 and 650 hectares, respectively. McCulley said the B.C. Forest Service is proactive about looking backward to learn and moving forward to apply the lessons, and the crews at the Pemberton base are “extremely busy” with work lasting almost from 4 a.m. to midnight.
“Hit hard, hit fast, is our motto. We practice that no matter where we go,” McCulley said, adding that the strategy to approach every fire depends on specific factors and conditions.
While all of the weekend's fires in this area were caused by lightning, fires started by people remain a concern around the province, particularly with abandoned campfires, McCulley said.
“We're still seeing human-caused starts all over the province,” he said, pleading for people to stop burning in these conditions.
Due to the extreme fire hazard rating, fires are currently not allowed in Whistler. A ban on all open burning – including campfires, fireworks, tiki torches and burning barrels – is currently in place for the whole Coastal Fire Zone.
It's been a challenging and tragic weekend for firefighting forces throughout the province, with 150 wildfires having started between Friday (July 30) and Sunday (Aug. 1), bringing the province's total of fires to 353 as of Sunday. Two pilots were killed on Saturday when their air tanker crashed near Lytton while they were trying to battle blazes in the area.
And the Jade Mountain wildfire threatening the Yalakom Valley, about 30 kilometres northwest of Lillooet, had grown to 1,500 hectares as of Monday morning, and is only 15 per cent contained. The evacuation alert for the Yalakom Valley has been expanded, and 75 to 85 residents of the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District are still under an evacuation alert.
B.C. acquired the help of additional firefighting crews and aircraft from Alberta, Ontario and the Yukon to boost resources for the battle.
For further information about fire restrictions in Whistler, call (604) 935-8260. To report fires and smoke, dial *5555 on a cell phone or call 1-800-663-5555.