Preparing for the worst

SUN PEAKS EMPLOYS MULTI-TIERED APPROACH TO WILDFIRES

Eminent threat: This shot from 2003 shows the smoke billowing over Sun Peaks' horizon. - File Photo
Eminent threat: This shot from 2003 shows the smoke billowing over Sun Peaks’ horizon. – File Photo

The hills are alive and green along the major highways beside the North and South Thompson Rivers, but the unmistakable dark and ashen trees stick out as a reminder of the summer of 2003, one of the of the most catastrophic fire seasons on record according to the BC Wildfire website.

The fires didn’t reach Sun Peaks, but highlighted the risk the natural disaster posed to the community as two of the province’s 15 major wildfires burned within close proximity to the resort.

“You only had to be here when you could look out at midnight and see the nice glow over the hills of all the flames that were just over the horizon to know the community has to be fire safe,” said Mayor Al Raine. “Getting rid of a lot of the fuel that surrounds the residential development here is very important because that makes a big difference in how fast the fire would attack here.”

I think we’d be pretty naive or ignorant to think that we’re not at risk here

The McLure fire burned 29,202 hectares to the northwest and caused the evacuation of 3,800 people while destroying or damaging 72 homes and nine businesses in McLure, Barriere and Louis Creek. Another fire sparked on Strawberry Hill burned 5,731 hectares between Kamloops and Heffley Creek.

A third, the McGillivray fire, threatened from the east burning 11,400 hectares as close five kilometres away, prompting an evacuation of Sun Peaks.

“The disbelief of when the first fire, the McLure fire, started it opened everybody’s eyes,” said Sun Peaks Resort mountain operations manager Erik Meertens. “As each fire started, just that sense of being somewhat surrounded. Mother Nature, when she rears her ugly head, she can do whatever she wants.”

As a direct result of the past and present risk, Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR), the Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (SPMRM) and Sun Peaks Fire Rescue (SPFR) have each assumed a fire prevention role in the community, creating a three-stage approach to minimize the risk of wildfire as much as possible.

SPMRM looks after the valley. The municipality has spent $527,272 on fire prevention since 2012 and has applied for another $200,000 grant to continue mitigation efforts this summer. The municipality has removed forest fuels above Whitecroft to the resort, along the backside of Mt. Morrisey and along the north side of Sun Peaks Road.

“We haven’t finished the job but we’ve done a good portion of the work that had to be done,” Raine said.

The resort looks after the alpine. New staff is put through S-100 training to be legally entitled to respond to a blaze should the need arise. SPR also has trucks, pumps hoses and the snowmaking system available to respond to a wildfire.

You only had to be here when you could look out at midnight and see the nice glow over the hills of all the flames that were just over the horizon to know that community has to be fire safe

“Do I think we’re better prepared than in ’03? By far,” said Meertens. “The tooling, with the training, with the equipment and with the data we have available to us I think we’re better prepared for sure.”

SPR’s ongoing operations also serve to minimize the wildfire risk. The ski runs act as firebreaks, and trail maintenance and the clearing of old or dead trees serves a dual purpose to remove fuels while also creating new areas for glade skiing.

Meertens said his predecessor, Jamie Tattersfield, was ahead of his time in clearing pine beetle infested trees, and they continue to remove trees and other potential fuels on the mountain. This summer they are focused on the area between the Sunburst Lodge and the Burfield chairlift to remove dead or dying balsam and spruce trees.

“I don’t think you can put a measurement on it. I think we’d be pretty naive or ignorant to think that we’re not at risk here,” Meertens said.

The fire hall launched the most recent wildfire prevention initiative, working with residents to remove high-risk materials from around homes with the FireSmart program. Prevention officer Dean Schiavon encouraged homeowners to take measures themselves such as replacing bark mulch from landscaping, cleaning under porches and removing potential fuels from the 10-metre radius around homes.

“(Bark mulch) acts basically as a wick so we’re asking people to make sure right around the house, instead of using bark mulch using river rock or pea gravel, and keep underbrush trimmed up or if you have dead trees in your yard to clean them up,” Schiavon said.

He was not living in Sun Peaks during the 2003 scare, but remembers touring the area burned by the McGillivray Lake fire when he moved to the community the following year.

“It was still fresh in everybody’s mind and everybody was pretty nervous about the whole situation and how close it got,” Schiavon said.

“It’s always going to be there, but what we can do is help minimize our risk as residents. If we can minimize any impact a wildfire might have coming in, I think it’s to everyone’s advantage for the continuation of this community.”

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