Mountain Town News: 30 years ago this week, Yellowstone was ablaze
JACKSON, Wyo. — Reddish plumes of smoke barreled skyward from Yellowstone National Park 30 years ago this week as a nation wondered: What had gone wrong? Who had lost this cherished national treasure?
The fires had started in June after two years of drought. At first, there were no worries. These small fires were mostly caused by lightning. The National Park Service let them burn. Before the late 1960s, fires were generally believed to be detrimental for parks and forests, and management policies were aimed at suppressing fires as quickly as possible, notes the Wikipedia entry on the Yellowstone fire. However, as the beneficial ecological role of fire became better understood, the let-burn policy was adopted under controlled conditions.
Fires had their own mind. Yellowstone was overdue for a big one. The small fires merged, then leap-frogged across the forests. Still, 25,000 firefighters made enough progress that by early August the Park Service announced the fires contained.
Then the fires roared back to life. On one day in August, flames covered 150,000 acres. Joan Anzelmo was spokeswoman for Yellowstone during that summer of smoke and fire. She tells the Jackson Hole News&Guide that she remembers that day vividly. “It looked like the world was coming to an end,” she says.
The world didn’t end, but there was another scare in early September when strong winds in a cold front fanned flames. Old Faithful Inn itself was threatened. The historic, knotty-pine lodge was getting built in 1903-04, the very essence of parkitecture comfort and leisure.
Recalling that scare in 2008, National Public Radio recalled what Bob Barbee, then the park superintendent, had said at the time. “You know, there’s a lot of things that can burn in Yellowstone and it’s probably of no great consequence, but the Old Faithful Inn is the Sistine Chapel, and under any circumstances we don’t lose the Old Faithful Inn.”
The hotel survived as did all but 19 of the 400 or so buildings in the Old Faithful complex. Then, a few days later, on Sept. 11, rain and snow arrived to stall the fire. On Nov. 18, it was declared totally extinguished. Nearly 800,000 acres, or nearly a third of the national park, had been blackened.
There had been huge fires before — 3 million acres in Idaho and Montana burned in 1911. Timothy Egan’s book, “The Big Burn,” told a part of that story. In British Columbia, the Kech fire in 1958 burned 558,000 acres, a figure not eclipsed in that province until 2017.
But yet, if fire is somewhat periodic, the trend since Yellowstone has been clearly toward more frequent and larger fires, what some now call megafires. The News&Guide points out that wildfires in the 1970s burned on average 3 million acres a year in the United States. The number of fires has not increased, but the scale has: a record 10 million acres burned in 2015.
A warmer climate is one reason for the larger fires. Fire season in western North America has lengthened an average of 78 days between 1970 and 2015. Temperatures during the night, when fires tend to quiet down, have remained higher—a phenomenon noted in the fires this summer. And overall temperatures have increased. July was the warmest month in California history, climate scientist Daniel Swain noted in his California weather blog. It was, he added, a month of unprecedented early season fires in the Golden State.
Andrew Norman, a wildfire specialist on the Bridger-Teton National Forest who had been at the Yellowstone fire in 1988, told the News&Guide that he and others used to joke that they had lived through a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “Now a lot of us have had quite a few other once-in-a-lifetime experiences since then,” he said.
Gauging attitudes about
forests a decade later
BRECKENRIDGE — In 2007, researchers from the University of Colorado’s Institute of Behavioral Science arrived at Colorado’s Summit County to gauge the risk residents perceived in response to the pine beetle epidemic.
The epidemic had started in 1996 or thereabouts in nearby Grand County. Then, after several warm and extremely dry years to start the 21st century, the beetles proliferated. The peak was 2007. Entire mountain-sides of lodgepole pine had turned red as trees infested by a fungus carried by the beetles died, unable to get water.
Researchers are returning to Summit County, this time to gauge how community perceptions have changed, reports the Summit Daily News.
“We’re very interested in understanding how those perceptions change over time, as well as how communities have responded, how it may have affected relationships between residents and their government agencies, as well as people’s perceptions of forest management,” said Jamie Vickery, a post-doctoral research associate in the Natural Hazard Center.
Vickery said the study will try to dive into how much people relate to their environments, but also how the local environment can affect local opinion and decision-making.
The study may reveal how different communities perceive forest management practices, such as wildfire mitigation.
“Context is critical,” Vickery said. “Tree thinning and mitigation may be acceptable in one community, but another community might be up in arms. Different areas may respond differently to the same disturbance.”
Idaho dark skies are that
much closer to heaven
KETCHUM, Idaho — “Can’t go to space? Try Idaho,” advises Time Magazine in its “World’s Great Places 2018” list.
The International Dark-Sky Association last year designated a 1,400-square-mile region of the state as the first Dark Sky Reservation in the United States. The area includes Ketchum and Sun Valley.
To meet the eligibility criteria, the communities fine-tuned their lighting pollution ordinances, to prevent street and other lights from going upward when their use is on the ground.,
In Canada, a different group, the Royal Astronomical Society, designated Jasper National Park a Dark Sky Preserve in 2011 due to its limited light pollution.
Sweden had two spots among the top 100, both for overnight accommodations. Treehotel has seven cabins built in the trees – meaning considerably high off the ground—available for rent. Then there’s Icehotel 365, where rooms are located in icy fastness kept cold year-round by solar electricity.
Rock-throwers advised not to do it from tops of peaks
BANFF, Alberta — It’s not the first time that hikers have hurled rocks off the top of mountains. But this time, on a prominent mountain near Banff National Park, the bravado was videoed and posted on social media.
No maliciousness was intended, and the hikers have apologized on social media. But it’s never a wise thing to do, reminded public lands officials, given that there might be hikers or climbers below.
Good-sized solar farm in
the works for Aspen area
ASPEN — Aside from some relatively small-scale hydro and roof-top solar, little renewable energy production occurs in or within the immediate vicinity of Aspen. That may change.
Renewable Energy Systems, an international developer of renewable projects, has submitted a proposal calling for a 33-acre solar farm of 18,000 solar panels west of Aspen. At maximum production, the solar farm could generate 5 megawatts of electricity.
The Aspen Daily News says the site was used from 1974 to 2005 by the Aspen Consolidated Sanitation District for spreading disposable biosolids. The other uses were similar light industrial and transportation related. The closest homes are 800 to 1,000 feet away, and the location below the flight path for Aspen’s Sardy Field makes the land incompatible for further residential uses.
Just the same, the Woody Creek Caucus has concerns: “The majority of our members are concerned that this solar farm constitutes an industrial operation, and at 233 acres is very large and may not be compatible with the rural nature of Woody Creek,” they say in a letter submitted to the county.
On both sides of the border,
just too few employees
WHISTLER, B.C. — On both sides of the 49th latitude, the border of Canada and the United States, come calls for wider doors for immigrant labor.
In Canada, the Whistler Chamber of Commerce has elevated its advocacy of loosened immigration restrictions.
“The Chamber is an avid supporter of hiring Canadians first,” said a recent letter submitted to federal labor officials. “Unfortunately, despite significant efforts to hire Canadians, this has not filled our labour gap, and businesses are struggling.”
Melissa Pace, the chief executive of the business group, told Whistler’s Pique that the shortage of workers has left owners and managers distraught “about the possibility of closing their doors, their staff being completely burned out, and no ‘bodies’ lined up for work.”
Lack of housing available at prices that can be afforded by the relatively low wages available to service workers lies at the root of the problem. Such housing is being built and planned, but it’s not arrived. Neighbors of the proposed project have objected fiercely. At least among potential Canadian employees, Whistler has a reputation for its high-priced real estate.
Whistler’s business sectors want federal laws relaxed to allow foreign workers to stay longer.
Canada has long welcomed immigrants more so than the United States. Now, in Trump administration’s bureaucrats have quietly taken steps to constrict the flow of foreign workers into the United States by denying work visas and asking applicants for additional information.
The New York Times reports that hospitals, hotels, technology companies, and other businesses say they are now struggling to fill jobs with the foreign workers they need. “With foreign hires missing, the employees who remain are being forced to pick up the slack. Seasonal industries like hotels and landscaping are having to turn down customers or provide fewer services.”
Francine D. Blau, an economist at Cornell, told the Times that sustained reduction in immigration could dampen economic growth over time as more baby boomers retire. That goes for high-skilled immigrants, who disproportionately earn patents for new technology. It also applies to low-skilled workers, who are vital in elder care and child care, as well as construction and cleaning.
“A lot of our labor-force growth comes from immigrants and their children,” she said. “Without them, we’d suffer the problem associated with countries with an aging population, like Japan.”
In Whistler, a business has closed one of its five eateries because of labor shortages. A lodge has had 35 positions unfilled despite increased staff housing.
And in Massachusetts, a 65-year-old hotel manager on Martha’s Vineyard scrubbed toilets this summer because the seasonal-work visas of 5 Jamaican workers who had long worked at the property were not renewed.
Colorado ski resort also raising minimum wage
WINTER PARK – Winter Park Resort will raise the minimum wage this coming ski season to $12, a buck above last year’s minimum. That compares with Colorado’s state-mandated minimum wage of $10.20. Aspen Skiing Co. meanwhile, will jack its rates to $13.50, compared to $12 last year.
Is it any wonder Whistler has struggled to reduce carbon?
WHISTLER, B.C. – Recently municipal officials in Whistler announced that the community almost certainly would fall far short of its carbon reduction goals for 2020. The goals were ambitious but not nearly as extensive as the reductions that climate scientist say will be needed —very, very soon—to avert the worst of global warming impacts in the 21st century.
Looking around his community, Bryce Leigh finds much in both transportation and housing to improve. British Columbia gets most of its electricity from hydroelectric sources, so there are no giant coal-fired power plants to blame. But the cars and houses are both big, indulgent in the eyes of Leigh.
Big, low-mileage SUVS and pickups dominate. Are they necessary? A Honda Fit, he says, gets 50 mpg, can comfortably accommodate a family of four, all of them over six feet tall, with the roof rack able to accommodate four bikes or four kayaks.
And then there are the helicopters, used to take people to the top of a local mountain, some of whom celebrate their feats by driving golf balls off the summit.
A real estate appraiser, Leigh says he has found many homes energy-guzzling. For example, he cites the house with the vast windows, most of which cannot open. Instead, the house relies upon a constantly operating ventilation system that filters air while cooling and heating it.
Then there are Whistler’s businesses. “Walk through the village in any season and see how many businesses keep their doors open all year regardless of the outdoor temperature,” he adds.
“Even Whistler Blackcomb, which has made great efforts to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and has the most to lose from global warming,” he adds. On the Vail Resorts-operated website, he says, the company promotes not an electric vehicle or a small car, but a giant GMC pickup.
And if Vail Resorts really wants to make a statement illustrating how far it will go to prevent climate change, he says, it could stop heli-skiing.
“It really comes down to, are we willing to sacrifice the environment in order to maintain our current lifestyles?” says Leigh. “Or are we willing to sacrifice our current lifestyles to preserve the environment?”
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