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Mountain News: Fires in Alberta and the smudge on all of our fingers



In early October 2011, when I visited Fort McMurray as part of a tour of what officials pointedly called the Athabascan oil sands, geraniums were still blooming at the airport. I thought it odd to have flowers blossoming so far north and in a place with a reputation for such deep mid-winter cold.

Although low in elevation for Alberta at 260 metres (850 feet), Fort McMurray has a climate bordering on the subarctic, says Wikipedia. January temperatures average only -17.4 C.

But Alberta this past winter was mild and dry and April was exceptionally warm. The fire broke out on May 1 and, just two days later, as whole subdivisions in Fort McMurray erupted into flames, a temperature of 32.7 C was recorded.

About five hours south of the fire, Banff was also unusually warm, although not nearly as much: 24.3 C, breaking a 124-year-old record.

This warming fits in with broad trends. Alberta's mean annual temperature has increased by 1.4 C over the last century, with much of that increase since the 1970s from rising winter and spring temperatures, according to Banff's Rocky Mountain Outlook.

The elephant in this discussion is human-caused climate change. Writing in the New Yorker last week, Elizabeth Kolbert conceded the difficulty of pinning any particular disaster on climate change but added the link is pretty compelling.

"In Canada, and also in the United States and much of the rest of the world, higher temperatures have been extending the wildfire season. Last year, wildfires consumed ten million acres in the U.S., which was the largest area of any year on record. All of the top five years occurred in the past decade," wrote Kolbert, the 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner in non-fiction for her book, The Sixth Great Extinction.

Kolbert points to a Forest Service report published last April that found fire seasons now last an average 78 days longer than in 1970. In the past three decades, the area burned each year by forest fires has doubled.

The link to the burning of hydrocarbon is obvious, and Fort McMurray exists almost exclusively to extract oil from the gooey, tar-like substance called bitumen. From 1,200 residents, when the company now called Suncor arrived to begin the extraction, the population has grown to 88,000 — all of whom were forced to flee last week as flames soared and destroyed 1,200 homes.

When I visited Fort McMurray five years ago, elected officials were expecting continued giant populations. The population was cosmopolitan, labour being in high demand. Men were shuttling in and out for two-week work sessions from homes in job-scarce Nova Scotia. At the time, the Keystone XL pipeline looked like it would happen, as well as another pipeline, to a port in B.C.

TransCanada's Keystone XL has been shelved.

How the fire got started had not been established by Monday, but in her New Yorker piece, Kolbert pointed to a collective guilt. Greenhouse gas emissions, she pointed out, created the climate shift that made the fire more likely. "We are all consumers of oil, not to mention coal and natural gas, which means that we've all contributed to the latest inferno," she said.

That's particularly true in the Rocky Mountains. About 20 per cent of the oil processed at Colorado's only refinery comes from Suncor's operation near Fort McMurray. Chevron's refinery in Salt Lake City also processes heavy oil from the tar sands. Anybody ever bought a tank of gas in Colorado or Utah?

Crested Butte, plastic bags, and Fort McMurray

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. — As an oil-patch boom town, Fort McMurray probably doesn't immediately come to mind as being at the forefront of environmental protection laws.

But in 2010, elected officials in Wood Buffalo, as the municipality is more formally known, enacted a ban on plastic and paper bags. At the time, among ski towns of the West, only Telluride, Colo., had adopted a ban. But even Telluride, among the most liberal of ski towns, showed restraint. Paper bags could be used, but there was a charge of 20 cents.

Since then, a torrent of ski towns, most in Colorado, have adopted bans or partial bans: Aspen, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Nederland, and Vail, but also including two California towns: Truckee and South Lake Tahoe.

In Crested Butte last week, elected officials instructed their staff attorney to begin working on a similar legislation.

In 2014, a radio station in Saskatchewan asked officials in Fort McMurray how the ban had gone. Jarrod Peckford, supervisor of environmental and public services, said community residents responded positively when doing cleanup days.

"We don't see the plastic bags in the tree lines anymore," he said.

Taking a number to camp at Conundrum

ASPEN, Colo. — In the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness between Aspen and Crested Butte, the U.S. Forest Service thinks it needs to create a reservation system with a cap on users.

Most problematic is Conundrum Hot Springs, a popular destination at timberline. Foresters told the Aspen Daily News they think the site should be able to handle no more than 20 groups at a time. "In the past, we've had upwards of 75 groups at a time camping," said Karen Schroyer, the district ranger.

Meet the captains of cannabis capitalism

DENVER, Colo. — Fortunes are being made in marijuana in Colorado, and wouldn't you know it, several of the captains of the cannabis sector have strong ski-town connections.

While many ski towns have both medical and recreational cannabis stores, the biggest action has been in Denver. There, just 10 people control nearly one-fifth of the city's 1,046 active licences for sales, The Denver Post reported.

One of the players is Josh Ginsberg, identified as a "straight-A admitted misfit" from Steamboat Springs with a penchant for mischief. Headed for Wall Street, he instead ended up in cannabis sales in partnership with another misfit, Rhett Jordan, who grew up in the foothills west of Denver, the son of a prominent real-estate developer.

Together, the two approached Peter Knobel of Vail about leasing property. Knobel arrived at Vail from New York City in 2001 and, defiant of the wishes of Vail's old guard, got local voter approval for a giant real-estate development called Solaris to replace a 1960s-style shopping complex. In 2007, at the peak of the boom, penthouses were selling in excess of US$3,000 per square foot.

But Knobel also owns multiple properties, including a warehouse in Denver that he suggested would be valuable for the operations of the younger cannabis entrepreneurs. The three formed a triumvirate, with Knobel having a 50-per-cent stake.

Native Roots, their company, has 50 medical and nine recreational licences for sales in Denver. They also have stores in Aspen, Frisco, Dillon, and in Eagle-Vail, just outside Vail.

Talking about pot with adolescents

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — The effect of Colorado's legalization of marijuana in creating greater availability for teenagers is poorly understood and mostly anecdotal. Those anecdotes, however, support the fears of many that legalization has not been a good thing for youth.

More scientifically, research has found that heavy use of marijuana by adolescents is not good for developing brains. Some say that people should avoid even moderate use of marijuana until they're 25 or 26.

With this background, the school district in Steamboat Springs has decided to purchase a new curriculum developed locally called the Marijuana Education Initiative. The curriculum, as explained by the Steamboat Pilot & Today, does not demonize marijuana but presents facts about the drug's effect on the teen brain.

"It acknowledges that marijuana is a legal recreational and medicinal substance many adults choose to use, but it also sends a strong message that it's not OK for kids to use marijuana. The curriculum also offers intervention strategies for teens who self-identify as habitual marijuana users."

The newspaper added that school curriculum is not enough. "Fact-based discussions about the realities of legal pot should be taking place around dinner tables, in our homes and churches and among community groups," the newspaper said.

But in Denver, legislators decided to make non-smokable medical cannabis more accessible in schools to those with identified needs. The new law says that students with medical prescriptions for cannabis-derived products must be allowed to consume their medicine on school grounds. The Durango Herald said there are about 300 students in Colorado who qualify.

Rep. J. Paul Brown, a Republican, was among the legislators voting for the new law. "I have a niece that has epilepsy and needs to use cannabis to take care of that problem, so I understand," he told The Herald.

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