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Mountain News: Should we look at wildfires through new set of lenses?



ASPEN, Colo.—Wildfires continued to be the story last week in Colorado, California, and other Western states. As of Sunday, 56 fires had burned more than one million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Taking a broad view, fire historian Stephen Pyne suggested that the conversation about fire was wrongly framed. "Every major fire rekindles another round of commentaries about 'America's wildfire problem,'" Pyne wrote in The Conversation. "But the fact is that our nation does not have a fire problem. It has many fire problems, and they require different strategies. Some problems have technical solutions, some demand cultural calls. All are political."

Pyne suggested the wonky phrase wildland-urban interface miscasts the reality. "It's a dumb name because the boundary is not really an interface but an intermix, in which houses and natural vegetation abut and scramble in an ecological omelet."

We tend to think of such places as houses in wildlands. Better, he said, is to think of them as urban or exurban enclaves with peculiar landscaping. "Defining it as an urban problem makes solutions quickly apparent."

One of those intermix zones is Colorado's Roaring Fork Valley. There, the Lake Christine Fire had burned nearly 7,000 acres as of Monday after being triggered by two shooters at a range on July 3. Some 1,800 residents were evacuated from 664 homes in and around Basalt and El Jebel, an area heavily covered by pinyon and juniper forests located 32 kilometres down-valley from Aspen. Only three houses burned down, however, and no one was killed.

In Oregon, there's discussion of a bill that would allow chainsaws in a wilderness study area near Bend to thin juniper trees on about 800 acres. The sponsor of the congressional bill, U.S. Rep. Ron Walden, said the bill would make it easier to keep fires from spreading near an unincorporated subdivision with about 5,500 full-time residents. Dan Morse, of the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association, told the Bend Bulletin that he sympathized with the threat perceived by the homeowners. However, he said, what needs to be done is manage risk through land use and fire-management planning.

What is clear enough is that the number and scale of wildfires has been increasing in recent decades. While past forest management policies probably have something to do with that, as people like Pyne have been saying for decades, so does the changing climate.

In California, Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones told a science reporter for KQED that the growing risk of climate-related disasters is already hitting the insurance market. Insurers are developing ever-more sophisticated fire-risk models. "So they look at things like topography, slope, wind direction. It used to be that insurers had more generic approaches to try to figure out these risks. They would look at whole zip codes or whole counties or whole area codes. But now they're able to do it on a home-by-home basis."

Should the state have a role in deciding where people live, in order to minimize risk to wildfire and other disasters?

"There's no question that the state of California, like every other state, does a lousy job of making land-use decisions," Morse replied.

"One of the big disconnects that's resulting in more businesses and people living in harm's way is that decisions about whether to put new subdivisions or new homes, new businesses, into a floodplain or a high-risk fire area or on top of an earthquake fault, are made by local governments. And those local governments are not required, nor do they have any financial liability for, those decisions. Probably the biggest single improvement we could make is saying, look, we're going to require local governments to bear some of the cost of those decisions."

Give trout a break in hot days of summer

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—It was a hot, blistering June, but rain has finally arrived in Colorado. Fish in the Yampa River should appreciate that.

Last week, state authorities asked for anglers to quit fishing the river, which flows past downtown Steamboat Springs. Low flows and hot temperatures together resulted in less oxygen in the water. The river has reached low flows of 14 per cent of average this summer, reported Steamboat Today.

Trout are cold-water fish that have evolved to function best in 10 to 15 degree (Celsius) waters, according to a press release by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife. Upper lethal limits range from 23 to 26 degrees. Water temperatures in the Yampa River in early July exceeded 24 degrees later in the day."When water flows are minimal, fish become concentrated in residual pool habitat and become stressed due to increased competition for food resources," said Kris Middledorf, a wildlife manager. "Because the fish are already stressed by poor water quality conditions, any additional stress from being hooked could make them even more vulnerable to disease and death even if returned to the water quickly."

In addition to low flows, it was hot in June. The average temperature in Colorado was about two degrees warmer than the average from 1981 to 2010. Nationally, it was the third warmest June on record.

Becky Bolinger, Colorado's assistant state climatologist, reports that that June 2018 was tied with June 2016 for the third-warmest June in the state's 124-year record. Only those in 2012 and 2002 were warmer.

For January through June, Colorado was also notably the warmest. The two warmest first-six-months of years were set in 2002 and 2012, both of them drought years. This year's temperatures for those same six months tied those of 2016.

Putting a cap on large-format stores

KETCHUM, Idaho—Ketchum has been looking into capping the size of retailers in the community's core, at the base of the Sun Valley ski area. The city's planning commission proposes a cap of 36,000 square feet. The largest store currently is 17,000. However, a down-valley grocery store has 36,000 square feet.

It's not clear what prompted the push to cap store sizes. However, a report by a city planner noted the arrival of chain stores in mountain resort towns, including a 19,000 square-foot store by retailer TJ Maxx in Jackson, Wyo., last year. A city planner also investigated expansion plans by Target, Walmart, and other bigger-box retailers.

Let market determine pot shops

JASPER, Alta.—Jasper's elected officials have been advised to be less restrictive, rather than more, when pot stores open in October.

The Jasper Fitzhugh said a working group comprised mostly of law enforcement officials and managers from Parks Canada recommend letting the market decide how many stores be allowed. The working group also recommends that marijuana stores be allowed on any level of a building: street, basements, or upper floors.

These recommendations hew closely to results of a community survey. Parks Canada will have final say, though, as the town is located within Jasper National Park.

In North America, Colorado was first to grapple with such rules and regulations in advance of the 2014 legal opening of stores for recreational sales. Some towns chose to treat marijuana similar to alcohol. Such was the case in Aspen and Telluride. Others restricted the number of cannabis stores and also tightly limited locations. Steamboat Springs at the outset restricted the stores to a light industrial area well away from areas commonly visited by tourists. Vail and a number of other mountain towns chose not to allow cannabis stores at all.

Jasper's working group recommends no smoking and vaping be allowed in public places, with exceptions to be determined.

Another luxury hotel gets the OK

BRECKENRIDGE, Colo.—A compromise has been struck that will yield a branded luxury hotel and 50 wholly owned condominiums at the base of Peak 8 at the ski area in Breckenridge.

As described by the Summit Daily News, the agreement revolves around density. Developers get the density they want at the site, but they have to transfer potential building units from other vacant land places within Breckenridge.

The site being developed is owned by Vail Resorts and, after the hotel is built, will be managed by Vail Resorts.

Other pot-sweeteners agreed to by the developer include a benefit for the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center. The centre will get the use of 1,500 square feet of locker-room and storage facilities for the group's work with people who have disabilities.

Another agreement will tack on a US$2 fee to each hotel room rental for 20 years. The money is to be used to help protect Cucumber Gulch, an endangered wetlands area.

A conference centre? Yes, but where will they come from?

DURANGO, Colo.—Can Durango attract more conferences and conventions? Vail certainly does, as does Breckenridge and Aspen.

The Durango Telegraph reported a push by a local business group for a new performing arts and conference centre in the heart of the town. A business development group projects the undertaking would produce US$1 million in additional tax revenue for the city.

Elected officials, the Telegraph said, were mostly cool and curt.

Unaddressed was where the business for the conference centre would come from. Durango is six hours, at best, from Denver, with relatively expensive air connections.

ICE agents visit brewery, but not for a chilled one

OURAY, Colo.—Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrived in plain clothes in late June, leaving with one added individual, a worker at a brew pub who the federal agents accuse of immigration violations.

The individual arrested had reportedly lived in Ouray, located in a colourful canyon on the edge of the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, for several years and has a family. The owner of the Ouray Brewery, Erin Eddy, told the Telluride Daily Planet that she believed the individual was in the United States legally.

"We're now trying to sort through what this individual has been telling us, and whether it's true or not," she said.

The ICE agents also were in Telluride, but they made no arrest, the Planet said. One restaurateur told the newspaper that without immigrants "we'd be serving burgers and fries on paper plates."

At Ridgway, 16 kilometres from Ouray and about twice that to Telluride, a restaurant owner reported an uproar on social media. "Everyone is taking up arms, figuratively," said the restaurateur.

The value of thinning the forest interface

GRAND LAKE, Colo.—Testimony continues to arrive of the value of thinning forests in the urban-wildlands interface. A case in point is near Grand Lake, at the west entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park.

There, flames soared recently, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of homes in the Columbine subdivision. While incinerating 20 acres, no homes were lost, however.

Mike Long, the fire chief in Grand Lake, credited work by the Colorado State Forest Service. Since 2015, the state agency removed dead trees and created fuel-breaks on 2017 acres near the subdivision and other residential properties.

"That work without a doubt saved the Columbine subdivision," Long told the Sky-Hi News.

About an hour away in Summit County, dead trees are also being removed. The Summit Daily News reported work has begun on removing a wide swath of beetle-killed trees between Frisco and Breckenridge. This is part of a program to "treat" about 800 acres of U.S. Forest Service land.

A year ago, the nearby Peak 2 fire awed Summit County residents and worried residents of nearby Breckenridge. Then, the winds shifted, and the blaze was put out with very little harm done.

Summit County has made a long journey in its attitudes toward the threat of wildfire and what must be done to abate the risk to homes. Nearly all of the county—home to four ski areas—is within what is called the wildland-urban interface.

In the 1990s, it was official government policy to oppose cutting trees. After the raspy dry years of wildfires in 2002, local jurisdictions in Colorado evolved in their thinking about wildfire. Even so, there was significant public opposition in 2015 to the fuels reduction work now being completed between Frisco and Breckenridge.

Mountain reservoirs drop

GUNNISON, Colo.—Entering July, the question across Colorado was when it would begin raining. Limiting expansion of fires and preventing new fires was one reason for the prayers for rain. But reservoir levels have been dropping rapidly after a subpar winter of snow.

In the Crested Butte area, the Slate River has been running about one-tenth of its average flow for late June, reported Frank Kugel, general manager of the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District. "It's not as bad as the drought of 2002, the benchmark for drought, "but we are approaching that point," he told the Crested Butte News.

Two local reservoirs, Taylor Park and Blue Mesa—the latter being the largest in Colorado—normally reach their peak storage in mid to late July; this year both reached their max in early June.