Protection plan doesn't catch on like wildfire

In 2005, Whistler's community wildfire protection plan warned of "extreme consequences" if a forest fire struck the resort municipality. Four years later - as two blazes continue to burn near the 2010 Winter Olympic host community - most of the plan's key recommendations remain incomplete. But Whistler fire chief Rob Whitton has said he's happy with the progress the municipality has made on those recommendations. Speaking with Public Eye, Mr. Whitton confirmed the municipality hasn't:

* improved road access to neighborhoods with poor fire or evacuation routes;

* purchased a mobile emergency sprinkler kit that can protect between 30 to 50 homes;

* thinned high-hazard areas targeted by the plan - removing materials that could increase the chances or severity of a fire via a plan which was supposed to have taken five to ten years to implement;

* thinned two of the three trail networks recommended to get that treatment;

* introduced a requirement for buildings to be ten meters away from the forests' edge; or

* reviewed and revised existing bylaws so new buildings are constructed using standards that make them less vulnerable to forest fires.

Mr. Whitton said the municipality hasn't change its bylaws because the province is responsible for building standards.

According to the fire chief, it's "near impossible" to win approval from the government for bylaws that go beyond those standards - making those rules unenforceable.

As a result, this year, the municipality will repeal a four-year-old, plan-recommended requirement that new and replaced roofs be made from fire retardant material to protect them from ember showers.

As for why buildings don't have to be ten meters away from the forests' edge, Mr. Whitton said, "in some areas, it's downright impossible given lot configurations, lot sizes" while, in others, there're bylaws that prevent trees from being cut down.

But it's practicalities not legalities that have got in the way of the municipality purchasing a sprinkler kit and improving road access to neighborhoods with poor fire and evacuation routes.

Mr. Whitton said a kit would cost more than $100,000, while changing Whistler's roads would be a "significant undertaking" in both money and human resources.

That means the municipality's emergency response plan has been "tailored" to work around those access issues.

And Mr. Whitton said he knows fire departments with sprinkler kits "that would be more then willing to share them if required."

Nevertheless, despite all these deficiencies, the fire chief maintained Whistler is at a "good point" when it comes to completing the plan's recommendations.

Describing it as a "monumental task," he said thinning the region's high-hazard areas will be an especially "long-term project" - one the municipality has been undertaking as provincial government funding becomes available.

For example, Whistler completed cleaning up the Lost Lake Trail system in 2008. And work will begin in Kadenwood - a ritzy subdivision on the southern flank of Whistler Mountain - during the fall.

"Everybody - and myself included - would like things to happen faster," he said. But "every year we've made progress. And, from that perspective, I'm quite happy."

1 Comment

There are two changes to municipal bylaws that could make a huge difference, ban the use of all wood roofs and ban the use of most of the existing asphalt shingle roofs.

Historically, if you go back to about 1911, you could no longer get insurance for a wood shingle roof because of the significant fires in San Francisco and Vancouver. Over time, everyone forgot the signifcant reasons why wood shingles were so susceptible to various fire issues, despite modern fire fighting techniques.

Fire treatment for wood roofs so increases their price that they become uncompetitive with metal and concrete/clay roofs. The former mayor of Whistler, Hugh O'Rielly, who owned Whistler's chimney cleaning company, used to recount stories of spring chimney cleaning of wood shingle roofs. Of the roofs that had wood burning appliances, a significant number always had areas around their chimney's that were black from having caught fire only to have been put out, presumably, by snow melted higher up. Of course ever winter there were (lived there for 25 yrs) and still are a number of homes whose wood roofs continued to burn and required the fire dept.

As for asphalt shingle roofs, they love fire as well.

Cheap asphalt roofs lifespan-15 years, cheap wood shingles-20 years. Cheap metal roof 40 years.

The industry, both manufacturing and building & development industries drive these cheap roof prices. The public pays for these inappropriate roof types thru higher insurance rates, taxes for fire dept. services and having to replace a roof after only 15-20 years. Come to think of it, there is also a strong correlation here to the leaky condo crisis!

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