Mountain Town News: Should we look at wildfires through new set of lenses?
July 21, 2018
ASPEN – 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 20 miles 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, says 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.
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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 and 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 of 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, new homes or new businesses, into a floodplain, a high-risk fire area or on top of an earthquake fault, are made by local governments. 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."
Anglers asked to give trout a break in hot days of summer
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS – 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 percent of the average this summer, reports Steamboat Today.
Trout are cold-water fish that have evolved to function best in 50- to 60-degree waters, according to a press release by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Department. Upper lethal limits range from 74 to 79 degrees. Water temperatures in the Yampa River in early July exceeded 75 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 4 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 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.
From January through June, Colorado was also notably the warmest. The two warmest first-six-months of a year were set in 2002 and 2012, both drought years. This year's temperatures for those same six months tied 2016.
Ketchum looking to put 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, Wyoming, last year. A city planner also investigated expansion plans by Target, Walmart and other bigger-box retailers.
Jasper officials advised to let market determine pot shops
JASPER, Alberta – Jasper's elected officials have been advised to be less restrictive, rather than more, when stores open in October.
The Jasper Fitzhugh says a working group comprised mostly of law enforcement officials and managers from Parks Canada recommend letting the market decide how many stores will 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 the 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.
Whistler gets serious about tamping down on water use
WHISTLER, B.C. – Municipal officials in Whistler continued to push for greater water efficiency in the restaurant and hotel sector. A proposal being prepared at the direction of elected officials would prohibit the use and installation of once-through cooling devices.
Once-through cooling devices are commonly used in certain types of air-conditioning equipment and walk-in freezers. They rely on treated water to cool refrigeration condenser coils.
The reason the municipality wants the devices phased out is that they used a lot of water. Even a small to medium unit will, when operated 12 hours a day, use enough water to fill half an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Pique Newsmagazine says Whistler is pushing for devices that employ recirculating or air-cooled equipment. Other Canadian and U.S. cities have been transitioning to these newer, less water-intensive systems.
A conference center?
DURANGO – Can Durango attract more conferences and conventions?
The Durango Telegraph reports a push by a local business group for a new performing arts and conference center in the heart of the town. A business development group projects the undertaking would produce $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 center would come from. Durango is six hours, at best, from Denver, with relatively expensive air connections.