Wildfire on B.C. mountain not a threat to Olympic venues

Fire officials say a blaze on a B.C. Olympic mountain is much smaller than originally feared but just in case, there’s a backup plan if the winds suddenly shift and threaten 2010 Games venues.

A wildfire burns on Blackcomb Mountain in Whistler

WHISTLER, B.C. — Fire officials say a blaze on a B.C. Olympic mountain is much smaller than originally feared but just in case, there’s a backup plan if the winds suddenly shift and threaten 2010 Games venues.

They’ll turn on the snowmaking equipment.

“On the alpine venue, we’re fortunate enough to have a sprinkler system, more or less, with the snowmaking capacity we have in that zone so we have reservoirs and the ability to pump water into those zones,” said Doug Forseth, vice-president of operations for Whistler-Blackcomb.

“We have fire hydrants for the snowmaking equipment and we have the ability to have some capable resources to help dampen the fire if we have anything start.”

The forest fire on Blackcomb Mountain, which began Thursday afternoon due to a lightning strike, is now estimated at 30 hectares.

Fire information officer Phil Taudin-Chabot said that’s a steep decline from the 75 hectares that was originally estimated.

“Last night, we did some aerial flights with satellite imagery to get a more accurate size of the fire,” Taudin-Chabot said at a Friday morning press briefing.

“It’s smaller than what we had originally anticipated.”

About 375 staff and guests were forced to flee from Blackcomb and adjacent Whistler Mountains as a result of the fire.

Some employees had to temporarily be evacuated from staff housing, though they were allowed back a short time later.

The fire was classified as a Rank 4, or highly vigorous, on Thursday. But Taudin-Chabot said by Friday morning it was being treated as a Rank 2, or creeping surface fire.

“The initial response on this fire seems to have been effective,” Taudin-Chabot said, adding that there was little growth overnight.

The Blackcomb Mountain fire is not an interface fire, meaning it is not currently a threat to homes. Taudin-Chabot said the fire is three kilometres uphill from any structures.

Blackcomb Mountain is home to the Olympic Sliding Centre, which will host the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton events during the 2010 Games. Whistler Mountain will host the alpine skiing events.

None of the Games venues are currently at risk.

“Where the fire is burning is away from any of the Olympic venues,” Taudin-Chabot said.

Forseth said much the same.

“This fire is a considerable distance away from (the Sliding Centre). We don’t see any jeopardy at all at the moment. The alpine events venue is on Whistler Mountain, at Creekside, and that’s even further away. So we’re clear and free at this time,” he said.

Whistler Fire Chief Rob Whitton said there are plans in place if the Olympic venues suddenly come under threat.

“For the Sliding Centre, because of the excavation that took place during construction, there’s quite a clear area between the forest and that venue. So I believe it would allow us a fire-break in that area,” he said.

“The construction of the site itself is concrete and steel. So again, pretty hard to get started from that perspective so we feel pretty confident about being able to mitigate anything that may come into that area.”

When it comes to Whistler Mountain, Whitton said fire crews have lots of access points if any flames start.

While Whistler has made its name as a ski resort town, the municipality also has a burgeoning summer tourist trade.

Whistler Mountain was open Friday for sightseeing, mountain biking and restricted hiking, as well as the gondola that runs between the peaks of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains.

Tourism Whistler was careful to point out that it was business as usual in the village.

Casey Vanden said the biggest impact of the fire for them was a spike in calls to the 1-800-Whistler line

But he said the smoke and fire above the village hasn’t deterred long-weekend visitors.

“We haven’t had a single cancellation.”

There were 26 new fires reported yesterday in the area around Whistler, known as the Pemberton fire zone, and thunder and lightning is in the forecast again for Friday.

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