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Mountain News: A scare before the rains finally came

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SILVERTHORNE, Colo.—Soaring flames at the foot of 3,900-metre Buffalo Mountain last week scared plenty of people. Little more than an hour after the first wisps of smoke were reported, the evacuation of 1,400 homes near the Summit County town of Silverthorne had begun.

The fire never got that far, but it could have. Vast resources were devoted to containing the blaze at the intersection of mountain resort-style exurban sprawl and designated wilderness.

Taking in the picture two days later, Summit Daily News reporter Deepan Dutta said that the "rocky, log-strewn ground surrounding the neighborhoods has turned to a brown, black and pink hellscape, carpet-bombed over and over by air tankers dropping the fire retardant and water."

Jeff Berino, the Summit fire chief, said a massive aerial response was critical to saving the Mesa Cortina and Wildernest neighbourhoods. The two DC-10 air tankers cost US$50,000 an hour to operate. Six helicopters called in cost $8,000 an hour as they dropped 3,785-litre buckets of water on hotspots. Just in the first day, the bill came to $500,000. Berino told reporters the cost was worth it.

"All of that could have gone up in smoke," he said, gesturing toward the still-standing homes and condominiums.

It wasn't as if Summit County hadn't been aware of the risk of building homes nestled in whispering lodgepole pines. For decades, the local mantra was that all chainsaws were evil tools. Then, in 2002, drought hit, making the aging forests susceptible to an epidemic of bark beetles already underway. Whole hillsides had turned red by around 2006. Ultimately, half the trees in Summit County were killed by 2014.

In response, local jurisdictions did an about-face in their attitudes toward cutting trees. Before, regulations limited removal of trees near homes. The new regulations aggressively encouraged the FireSmart thinking.

Still, nearly all the county, including its six towns, lie within what is commonly called the urban-wilderness interface. Just how much danger remained was made clear a year ago when a fire began in the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge. For awhile, there was a fear that the town itself could be threatened. "It was scary. It was so close," said one resident at the time. Even more extensive regulations were adopted in February.

The U.S. Forest Service has also ramped up its removal of forest trees, what the agency calls "treatments." Some of this work has been in conjunction with the Colorado Forest Service and Denver Water, in a program called Forests to Faucets.

Bill Jackson, the district ranger, reported $12 million has been spent across 12,000 acres (4,856 ha.). That work included $1 million to remove trees and other vegetation on 364 ha. in the area of last week's fire. Jackson credited the fuel breaks with allowing firefighters to get the upper hand.

Although not in the area of last week's fire, Denver Water has appropriated significant sums for tree thinning in recent years. The agency gets about 30 per cent of its water from Dillon Reservoir and in turn provides water for roughly a quarter of Colorado's 5.6 million residents. Last year it committed $16.5 million for the next five years to match those of the state and national forest agencies for work in Summit County and in the nearby Winter Park area, another source of Denver's water.

Rain arrived over the weekend to dampen fire risk. But before it did, many people were on edge.

"Pray for some not so nice days with some good rain," wrote Mark Reaman in the Crested Butte Times. In Telluride, it was the same. "The forest floor crackles underfoot, and the Valley Floor is browner than it is green," said the Telluride Daily Planet. "It is often the first subject of conversation when people meet on the streets. Sometimes the clouds roll in, but so far, they've been stingy with the rain."

Is Trump keeping foreign tourists away from the U.S.?

LAKE TAHOE, Calif.—Is the belligerent screw-you talk of U.S. President Donald Trump keeping tourists from other countries from visiting the United States?

Writing in The Conversation, Bing Pan said probably, although it's hard to parcel out Trump from other reasons.

Bing, an associate professor of tourism management at Pennsylvania State University, said income levels, exchange rates, hospitality infrastructure, and even the release of a movie can affect tourist volumes.

Even before Trump was elected, the number of visitors to the United States had flattened. Canadians, who constitute a quarter of all international visitors, have had a drop in the value of their currency relative to U.S. dollars in recent years.

While there is some evidence that Trump himself is causing people to steer clear of the United States, Chinese visitors are actually more likely to visit the United States under the Trump administration, as statistics have shown.

Gray wolves trot deeper

TRUCKEE, Calif.—A grey wolf has trotted to within two kilometres of Interstate 80 and the Boreal Mountain ski area near the summit of Donner Pass.

This is 32 kilometres from Lake Tahoe and the farthest south in the Sierra Nevada that wolves have been in modern times.

Wildlife biologists told the Sierra Sun they believe the wolf is the offspring of a wolf native to Oregon but wandered south in 2011. She was the first wolf to cross into California in decades.

A collared GPT transmitter on the wolf alerted representatives of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as to the whereabouts of the canis lupus, as grey wolves are taxonomically identified by scientists.

In Canada, scientists have also used a tracking device to follow a female wolf in Banff National Park. Unlike California, wolves are not uncommon in Banff and most of Alberta. What's unusual is the existence of lactating females in the same vicinity.

"When two wolves in the same pack have pups the same year, the main breeding female may kill the other pups or they are simply abandoned," wildlife research ecologist Jesse Whittington explained to the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

On the other hand, maybe this wolf in California has been coming and going. Wolves will travel up to 19 kilometres in search of food for their pups.

Is cannabis more like alcohol or tobacco?

BANFF, Alta.—Should public smoking and vaping of cannabis be treated like alcohol or tobacco?

In Banff and other local jurisdictions, elected officials are deciding the terms of use for marijuana. Banff's council has been persuaded it should be treated more like alcohol. It cannot be used in public places; consumption is restricted to private residences and properties.

Alison Gerrits, Banff's community services director, said cannabis has elements similar to alcohol, in that it affects cognitive functioning, However, it is similar to tobacco in that it has odours, but also can have secondhand smoke exposure.

"We don't allow alcohol to be consumed in the public realm, so it makes sense that the same would be true for a substance that does, in essence, have the same type of impact on cognitive ability," she said at a meeting covered by the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Les Hagen, who directs Action on Smoking and Health, said any restrictions on cannabis use can also be easily justified for tobacco use. This is especially true, he said, if the main goal is to protect children and youth from harmful substances

"For a five-year-old, smoking is smoking, whether it involves vaping or cigars or cigarettes or what have you," he told the elected officials. "Modelling is a very essential element to childhood development, and if we can model healthy behaviour to kids, we're more likely to get healthy kids."

The Outlook points out that those U.S. states that have allowed use of cannabis still do not allow public consumption.

Taxes on Amazon sales swell

ASPEN, Colo.—In January, people making purchases in Aspen from Amazon have been paying the city sales tax under an agreement with the online marketplace. The Aspen Daily News said there's no way to say absolutely, but it looks like the added tax is producing significant revenue for the town.

Such sales would fall under the "miscellaneous" category of the city's tax reports, and those through April were up 30 per cent, an increase of around US$4 million.

Another courthouse remodel

ASPEN, Calif.—Pitkin County's historic courthouse, first opened in 1891, is getting a $3 million to US$5 million update. Some offices are migrating to other locations, and the courthouse, which currently has two courtrooms, will have a third.

But it will also have less public access. After the remodel there will be just one door available for the public to enter, and visitors will have to submit their belongings to be examined by an X-ray machine, as has become so common in judicial buildings, state capitals, and even some city buildings around the country in recent years.

Construction worker dies

GRANBY, Colo.—Construction sites can be dangerous, especially in trenches. A trench collapsed at a condominium project in Granby, killing a worker. No details were available about the circumstances. Another trench cave-in claimed a life in Granby in the mid-1990s, remembers Patrick Brower, former editor of the Sky-Hi News.

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