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The air up there: Whistler choking on smoke as wildfires rage across province

July 8, 2015

By: Vancouver Sun

Holly Chandler booked a holiday in Whistler and she got Beijing instead.

That’s how the Toronto realtor compared the air quality Tuesday as Whistler village choked on smoke drifting in from the Elaho and Boulder Creek forest fires.

“It’s like Beijing,” she said in an interview. “I was there about 10 years ago. Just like this. It’s crazy. Who would have thought? You’re basically smoking.”

She arrived Sunday night in Whistler hoping to do some mountain biking, walking and swimming but has been hitting the spas instead and staying indoors more than expected.

The Vancouver Sun caught up with her as she was wrapping a bandana — “$4, lots of different colours” — around her face to protect against smoke hanging like a dense fog over the resort municipality.

Environment Canada warned Tuesday that Whistler air quality had reached 11 — the highest number on its Air Quality Health Index.

Authorities warn that people with chronic underlying medical conditions should postpone strenuous exercise until the advisory is lifted. Staying indoors and in air-conditioned spaces helps to reduce fine particulate exposure, which is a particular concern for infants, the elderly and those who have diabetes, and lung or heart disease.

Whistler Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden has shut her office windows and suspended her 30-minute morning run in favour of a short walk around the block with her dog.

“People are modifying their activities,” she said in an interview outside municipal hall.

Whistler residents and visitors should be especially careful, the mayor said, noting two fires on the Valley Trail have already been put out.

“We’re at an extreme fire hazard level and we want to ensure no new fires start.”

She added: “I’ve lived here since 1973. Of course, we’ve had dry conditions from time to time … I have to say I’ve never seen smoke in the valley like this before.”

Wilhelm-Morden noted that Whistler is open for business, no events have been cancelled and she remains hopeful an inversion keeping the smoke in the town lifts soon. She recommended people planning on visiting Whistler regularly check the whistler.ca or whistler.com websites.

Tourism Whistler spokeswoman Patricia Westerholm added that plenty of tourists are calling to ask about air quality in the village but so far there’s not been a significant number of cancellations. “It’s too early to tell the impact. It’s business as usual, as much as it can be.”

Whistler Arts Council executive director Doti Niedermayer said the outdoor Whistler Children’s Festival is still a go for the coming weekend. An estimated 6,000 people attended last year. She is hopeful weather conditions improve but noted it is ultimately up to individuals to decide based on conditions at the time.

Numerous people were walking through the village wearing medical-style face masks in an effort to limit smoke intake.

Vancouver resident Robin Morrish, who has a place in Whistler, was touring the village with friends from Kelowna. All of them — including three children aged five to 11, one with asthma — wore masks obtained from the Whistler hospital.

“We heard conditions were rated the highest pollution possible,” she said, stopping to cough. “Our eyes are stinging, my son’s throat is itchy. We’re doing the best we can, trying to have fun and see Whistler even under these conditions.”

The group was just eating pizza at Avalanche Pizza, where a slice of pepperoni fetches $3.33 and a mask $4.

“Why not?” said owner Rick Hale. “Elderly people. Might as well. It seems a good thing to do. One can only breathe so much of this stuff.”

Lorraine and Dorne Cornish of Maple Ridge had just arrived to celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary.

“We’re here, that’s the important thing,” he said. “And we’re with family. We’ll do what we can and save the rest for another day. No big deal. Life is full of ups and downs and surprises.”

Their daughter, Cherilynn Toll, also of Maple Ridge, had planned to take them up the gondola for a sightseeing excursion. “It’s scratched,” she lamented. “I think I’m more disappointed than them. … We’ll have to come again.”

 

By: Vancouver Sun

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