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Mountain News: Drought, fire with the big fires still ahead



GUNNISON, Colo. — Drought and wildlife continue to be front and centre in large swaths of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada.

In central Colorado, wrestling team members from Western State College were recruited to move rocks in the Gunnison River to create a narrower chute for the water. This is necessary for the annual Gunnison River Festival, where kayakers display their skills.

The river last week was carrying only 108 cubic metres per second, according to the Crested Butte News, compared to 1,192 m3/s at the same time last year.

Elsewhere in the Gunnison-Crested Butte region, county road crews have been advised to spare the blading on all but the worst dirt and gravel roads. "Don't create a dust bowl, because it's dusty enough," said Marlene Crosby, director of public works for Gunnison County.

East of Gunnison, at the foot of Monarch Pass, a rancher near the hamlet of Doyleville predicts water shortages will yield a hay crop 30 to 40 per cent of normal, which means culling his cattle herd. Greg Peterson likened his ranch to a car factory capable of making 1,000 cars a day forced to produce 500 a day.

"You still have the same fixed costs," he told the Crested Butte News. "Last time this happened was 2002, and it varied, but it took most people two to four years to rebuild. If it stays like this, it could be worse than 2002."

In Steamboat, mandatory watering restrictions were ordered, a first in at least 35 years. Water officials tell Steamboat Today they think the water situation is far more dire than in 2002.

In Aspen, Pitkin County authorities tested the emergency notification system, sending test calls to about 5,000 phone lines in batches of 200.

The Aspen Times notes that after a lightning storm in the Aspen area, many people were on edge, worried about the potential for forest fires. So was the Aspen city government. Meeting in emergency session, the city council gave municipal manager Steve Barwick permission to spend whatever funds are necessary should a fire break out in Aspen.

"The first 24 hours, you're on your own as a city and county," Mayor Mick Ireland said. "Should it come to this, we want the city manager to have the funds to do whatever is necessary."

The council also approved $10,000 for a public information campaign designed to emphasize wildfire prevention and reaction steps. "Someone said it's not a matter of if a wildfire will strike, it's a matter of when. And I have to agree with them," said Joe DiSalvo, sheriff of Pitkin County.

In the Sierra Nevada, it's been five years since the Angora fire devoured hundreds of homes in the Lake Tahoe Basin. After that, agencies vowed action. But California State Sen. Ted Gains, a Republican, gives the effort a C-minus. Or maybe an incomplete.

"I think we have made tremendous progress, but we still have a long way to go," he told the Sierra Sun.

Agencies have "treated" more than 2,833 hectacres of forest that are considered to have excessive fuels, thanks in part to streamlining of regulatory processes. Disagreements remain about the tradeoffs of logging operations and prescribed burns to the quality of water in Lake Tahoe.

But as time from the Angora fire lengthens, the urgency has ebbed. "Things tend to fade," said Gaines, of wildfire preparedness. "And we can't afford that in the Lake Tahoe Basin."

Fire evacuees take refuge in mountains

FRISCO, Colo. — Hotels in the Colorado high country reported surging occupation from evacuees of the wildfires along the Colorado's urbanized Front Range corridor.

"One, it's a little bit safer, and two, they figure if they go anywhere, they might as well go someplace where it's beautiful," one front-desk clerk in Frisco told the Summit Daily News. Business had tripled from a normal weekend, she estimated.

But not all is necessarily well in the mountain towns. The newspaper talked with an Avon resident, whose father and stepmother had fled the giant fire in Colorado Springs. The woman said she'd invite them to Avon, "except I'm worried that we're going to go up (in flames)."

Indeed, a fire did erupt in the piñon-and-juniper country, located west of the ski country of Vail and Beaver Creek. The fire was put out within a day.

Merchants of 'ade count their quarters

ASPEN, Colo. — Young entrepreneurs were out all over Aspen this past weekend, hawking the virtues of lemonade. The Aspen Times explains that Lemonade Day Aspen was the local manifestation of a national program designed to spike their interest of entrepreneurial efforts at a young age. The sloshers of lemon — and lavender and raspberry — ades were encouraged to save some of their profits, but also to share the money with good causes.

"What's so cool is how many kids wanted to give back," said Heather Hicks, director of Lemonade Day Aspen. "It's such reflection of our community... "