Despite a devastating fire Monday night (Sept.16) that destroyed four maintenance and office buildings, Whistler Blackcomb (WB) doesn’t expect any delays to the start of the 2013-14 ski season.
“Everybody’s bunking in,” said WB spokesperson Michelle Leroux. “Staff were able to keep things seamless for our clients … and we're finding room in all of our other areas at this point, places where everyone can sit down and get back to work.
“The main thing we’re all just really relieved about is nobody was hurt.”
A rapid-moving fire swept through the four Blackcomb buildings just before midnight, completely destroying the structures and calling on the resources of three fire halls to contain it.
WB personnel had responded to a security alarm at the Base II site adjacent to Parking Lots 7 and 8, but upon investigation found one of the structures engulfed in flame.
The fire grew so rapidly, a crew of four firefighters arriving shortly after was confronted with a blaze consuming three buildings and threatening a fourth. In total, 32 members from the area’s three fire halls were called in to put down the fire throughout the night.
Personnel wearing respirators reported several small explosions caused by compressed gas cylinders or propane containers.
The fire’s quick spread was fuelled by an assortment of accelerants common to the paint shop and chemical storage on site, said Whistler Fire Chief Rob Whitton.
"We're not sure of the (full) list of exactly what was there, but we were getting some pretty odd-coloured flames, from deep purple to brilliant blue,” said Whitton. “The decision was made early on to fight this defensively because of the size of the fire, the extent of the damage and how fast it was moving through the buildings.”
The fire heavily damaged five parked vehicles, while fire crews moved eight to 10 other vehicles away from the flames, in some cases by smashing their driver-side windows to gain access.
By 4:15 a.m. all four structures — which housed the mountain operations offices, sign shop, building maintenance workshop, reservations call centre and pass-administration working areas — were gone.
By morning, each of the buildings were either in complete ruin, or at risk of collapse with caved-in roofs and missing walls. An excavator was called in to safely pull down what remained standing as crews mopped up the remaining hotspots.
Investigators do not suspect arson, but the cause of the fire is not yet known.
There were no injuries, nor were there any employees on site at the time of the fire.
Whitton said this was Whistler’s worst fire since the Pinnacle Ridge blaze in 2007 that destroyed four townhomes at a cost of $3 million.
However, he added it could have been much worse without the recent cool, wet weather that helped contain the fire, which spread to a half-dozen trees.
The size of the blaze and number of hoses required also stretched water resources, forcing the fire department to adjust its tactics.
Whitton said the department’s response could have also been a little faster if a fire detection system was in place rather than the security system WB personnel first responded to. He nonetheless praised the security guards’ quick reaction.
"If they weren't the first to call in, they were the second or third,” he said. “It was a good, prompt response."
Despite losing the four facilities, Whistler Blackcomb plans to open the mountain for the winter ski season on Nov. 28 as planned.
Hours after the blaze, spokesperson Michelle Leroux said the company was already relocating staff to ensure they have the tools to do their job.
Reservations calls were re-routed from damaged phone lines to offices in Vancouver, while staff members from the Base II site were relocated to interim office spaces. The pass-administration and reservation staff moved to the Blackcomb Kids building, giving the mountain a month’s time to find a permanent facility.
“There was some damage to property, but it all feels really manageable to us,” Leroux said. “We have lots of time before the season starts and everyone seems to be taking it in stride.”
It’s known that staff have lost personal items in the fire, and in a broader sense Leroux fears some of that was probably historical memorabilia, stashed away by longtime employees, that would have held significant interest for the community. WB was hoping to mine that material perhaps for a 50th anniversary showcase in 2015.
“I don’t know what they had up there, but I can imagine they had all kinds of stuff. I know the museum will have some things, but I’m a bit sad to think of what we might have lost in the fire.”