04 August 2009

Mounted patrols added to Stanley Park in wake of arsons

By Kimberly Shearon, The Province August 4, 2009

Expect to see a heavier police presence the next time you visit Stanley Park.

The Vancouver Police Department's Mounted Squad has stepped up patrols of the landmark park in the wake of four fires police say are the work of a serial arsonist.

Six reserve officers have joined the squad's seven regular officers for patrols.

"It's really augmented our strength," said Const. Cinda Michael. "We're able to get out en masse and get the word out."

Police are on the lookout for any suspicious activity, and for people in violation of the park's "extreme" fire rating.

This rating means smoking and charcoal and wood-burning barbecues are prohibited on park grounds. Visitors must also stay on established trails.

Propane and gas barbecues are still permitted, but they must be used on elevated surfaces.

Michael said many of the people the squad has stopped are tourists unaware of what the park's "extreme" fire rating means.

"Everyone's been really cooperative. This is really about public education, not so much enforcement."

She said she is confident the patrols will help avert a major incident, but reminded people to be vigilant when enjoying the park.

"I've been down here for almost six years, and this is as dry as I've ever seen it get," Michael said. "Just be careful. It's something none of us want to lose."

The rest of the city's parks have been slapped with the "extreme" rating, too.

While Vancouverites might feel far removed from the wildfires devouring tinder-dry forests in other regions of the province, a very real risk still exists close to home.

"We have to be so vigilant, especially today with the temperatures rising so much," said Vancouver park-board commissioner Stuart Mackinnon on Monday.

"People, please use common sense."

All it takes is an improperly extinguished cigarette to ignite a parched park, fire experts warn.

Not only are the trees above the ground dry, but so is the ground below. When this ready supply of dry fuel combines with scorching temperatures, it creates an environment where brush fires can quickly spin out of control.

"It's definitely scary," said Michael.

Mackinnon said he still sees people using charcoal and wood-burning barbecues in local parks, even with the ban in place. He has also noted cigarette butts littering park trails and grassy areas.

"Some ash flying away can light fires. We ask people to please respect the rules."

Mackinnon has seen firsthand the destruction a wildfire can wreak. When he was a child, a massive wildfire chewed through Manning Park. It took years for the park to recover.

He said he would hate to see the same thing happen to Stanley Park.

"It would be such a tragedy for the whole city and for the world. To have it go up in flames would be heartbreaking," he said.

"It would be something we'd have to live with for years and years and years. As we saw from the wind storm a few years ago, nature takes its time to replace damage."

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