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Mountain Town News: When lightning strikes in high places

Allen Best
Mountain Town News
These mushrooms on the Ute Peak Trail are further proof that this has been a very wet summer.
Bill Linfield / Special to the Daily |

BUENA VISTA, Colo. — Lightning killed a newlywed climbing one of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks last week.

The Denver Post reported that Kathleen Bartlett and Ryan Pocius had been married less than a week when they were hiking just above tree line on 14,199-foot (5,328-meter) Mount Yale. The Chaffee County coroner said the bride probably died immediately. Pocius was injured but survived.

For all the people who spend time above tree line, not many people get hit. Still, it’s a very real threat. The usual rule of thumb is to rise early, make the summit by noon and then hasten down to the relative safety of trees.

But sometimes lightning strikes early. Fifteen people were struck in late June while hiking on Mt. Bierstadt, another 14,000-foot peak located 40 miles west of Denver. It was just before noon. None were killed, although nine later sought medical attention. A German shepherd dog named Rambo didn’t fare as well. It was killed.

All accounts of the day agree about the sudden turn of weather. One person reported perfect weather until about three minutes before the strike. A man said his hiking poles were making a low hum before he was hit. He reported feeling intense pain before waking up face down on the ground, his legs and arms paralyzed. He soon regained their use.

There is no perfect correlation with high ground and lightning. Florida, with a high point of just 345 feet above sea level, leads the United States in fatalities. Colorado is No. 3 in lightning fatalities but some of the highest areas of Colorado, such as the Elk Range between Aspen and Crested Butte, don’t necessarily get the most strikes, according to a report by Stephen Hodanish and Paul Wolyn called “Lightning Climatology for the State of Colorado.”

Wyoming leads the nation in a different if still dubious category: the number of deaths per million residents. Colorado is No. 2. In this category, Arizona, Montana and Utah also rank in the top 10, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration.

By any measure, the West Coast is relatively immune to lightning threats. While Colorado had 17 fatalities between 2005 and 2014, Washington state had none and Oregon just one.

Steve Clark is president of a group called the Lightning Data Center. It meets monthly in metropolitan Denver to talk about lightning. He believes the relative lack of lightning on the West Coast is explained by the more consistent temperatures and greater moisture.

Storms in the Rocky Mountains, in contrast, tend to be drier. In winter, that produces fluffier snow. That drier air combined with greater temperature differences produces more lightning.

Still, lightning can occur anywhere, says Clark, citing a lightning fatality several years ago on a Los Angeles beach.

Of every 10 people struck by lightning, only one is killed, he says. But about a third of survivors end up with long-term neurological problems, everything from motor coordination to speech to altered moods and appetite. “They can be singular or in combination,” he says.

Gas, not lightning, may be cause of deaths

ASPEN, Colo. — Jeffrey Beard was backpacking with three of his children near the Maroon Bells, a pair of 14,000-foot peaks. The first report was that Beard and his son, Cameron Beard, 14, of Colorado Springs, had been killed in a lightning strike.

But Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said that may have been a premature guess. Toxicology tests have been ordered but were not immediately available.

The Aspen Times reported second-hand reports that the father and son may have been overcome from carbon monoxide poisoning as a result of using a stove in a tent. Both bodies had bright-pink faces with pink patches all over. That, according to several websites, is a common sign of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Two other children in the family, ages 12 and 7, had been camping in a separate tent and were escorted out of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness by other campers.

Pesticides may pose new threat to trees

GRANBY, Colo. — A solution to the bark beetle epidemic in Colorado that began in 1996 may have contributed to a new problem.

A pesticide sprayed on trees on some private lands to prevent spread of the mountain pine beetle killed other insects, too. Those insects were natural enemies of something called the pine needle scale, according to Colorado state foresters. Those parasitic insects killed collaterally include wasps and beetles.

“The concentrated spraying for mountain pine beetles may have contributed to the build-up of this insect (scale), by killing beneficial parasitic insects that would normally keep scale populations in check,” says Ron Cousineau, district forester for the Colorado State Forest Service Granby District.

Cousineau said foresters have never seen pine needle scale this damaging in that part of Colorado. The trees affected include blue spruce in Vail and lodgepole pines in the Fraser Valley and small pockets in Summit County.

He said the areas of heaviest infestation of the scale have been observed within or adjacent to locations that have been heavily sprayed to control mountain pine beetle over the past decade.

Painkillers blamed for overdose deaths

SANTA FE, N.M. — Prescription drugs have played a major role in the sharp increase in drug overdose deaths in New Mexico.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports 536 deaths from drug overdoses last year, a 20 percent increase from the prior year. The percentage is 26.4 deaths per 100,000 people, behind only West Virginia and Kentucky.

Rio Arriba County, an impoverished county near the Colorado border, led New Mexico with 40 deaths, or a rate of 108 per 100,000 population.

Rett Ward, the secretary of the state health department, told the New Mexican that prescription opioids, such as oxycodone, are probably the main cause of the spike. Prescription opioids account for 41 percent of the deaths.

Some people may have started with prescription painkillers and, after becoming addicted, gravitated to heroin, because it can be cheaper and easier to obtain.

Silverton Mountain seeks tamer turf

SILVERTON, Colo. – Known as perhaps North America’s most challenging ski area, Silverton Mountain would like just a little less challenge.

The Durango Telegraph reports that the ski area hopes to get the U.S. government to allow it to swap some of its steep and above-tree-line terrain in its existing permit for more moderate, below-tree-line land. Reduced avalanche risk is also a consideration.

“Having some lower-elevation, lower-hazard and less wind-exposed slopes is something Silverton Guides needs,” co-owner Aaron Brill told the Telegraph.

The Telegraph notes that this swap-out may not be favored by all. Some of the proposed commercial areas would co-opt favorite haunts of local backcountry skiers.

Grizzlies snack on yearlings and ants

JACKSON, Wyo. — Grizzly bear numbers in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have climbed from fewer than 200 in the early 1990s to upwards of 700 and possibly more than 1,000 today. But as the population has grown, bears have spread out. Conflicts have occurred.

One area of conflict has been southeast of Jackson Hole, on the flanks of the Wind River Range, where the Green River—a major tributary to the Colorado River—originates. There, about 50 bear-livestock conflicts occur each year, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, citing Forest Service documents.

When they kill livestock, federal land managers typically relocate the grizzly from the area or, if they have a bad record, they are sometimes killed. Since 2012, 10 wildlife managers have killed 10 grizzlies.

This year, one grizzly that fed on cattle has been killed and another relocated from the area.

Albert Sommeres, a rancher, tells the newspaper that he estimates that six to eight head of cattle — mostly calves, but also yearlings — have been killed by grizzlies. An additional two cattle were killed by wolves. This was as of early July.

Also writing in the News&Guide, Todd Wilkinson points out that grizzlies will eat almost anything they find that’s edible. But their prey in the Yellowstone area might surprise you. Next to plants, the most common source of food for the grizzly is ants.

Wilkinson warns against assuming that the thriving bear populations will continue to thrive without federal protection. Part of the reason is that other sources of food include nuts of the whitebark pine, which has suffered as a result of warming temperatures.

Could anybody here use a hydro turbine?

ASPEN, Colo. — Aspen is having a most unusual municipal garage sale. In 2011, it commissioned creation of a 1.17-megawatt turbine and generator designed specifically for a 42-inch diameter pipeline.

Now, having paid $1.46 million for this electrical-generating equipment, it has no use for it. The city has begun looking high and low for buyers, reports The Aspen Daily News.

The story began in 2005 when the city adopted its climate-action plan, the Canary Initiative. The plan specified a goal of replacing all carbon sources in the city electrical utility’s portfolio. City utility planners believed that harnessing the power of Castle Creek, recreating a long-abandoned hydroelectric plant, would generate 8 percent of the needed power.

But while voters early on gave the project an explicit approval, people living along the creek allied themselves with environmentalists and river advocates to protest the dewatering of Castle and Maroon Creeks for a short section. In 2012, a thin majority of Aspen voters gave thumbs-down to the project.

Aspen has moved on. City utility officials now expect to be able to achieve 100 percent renewables by September without that local hydro. But Jim True, the city attorney, says that people who opposed the project have said that the only thing that will convince them the project is dead is if the city sells the turbine.

Will Dolan, the city’s renewable energy planner, says the challenge is that a project is needed with an extremely close match in terms of hydraulic head, range of flow, and so forth.

Worsening air quality blamed on wood stoves

PARK CITY, Utah — The Salt Lake Valley is notorious for its winter temperature inversions, which puts a lid on the foul air produced by cars, trucks, factories, and other pollution sources.

Just a few miles away, but on the east side of the Wasatch Range, the air quality has remained reasonably good. Still, there are worrisome trends that have caused Summit County officials to recommend a permanent ban on new wood-burning appliances in the Snyderville Basin. The basin is located north of Park City a few miles.

Phil Bondurant, the director of environmental health for Summit County, says burning wood causes more pollution than cars and trucks.

Planning commissioners agree with a ban on all new wood-burning stoves. The proposal, which now goes to the county commissioners, would allow replacement of existing stoves and furnaces.


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