Mountain Town News: No mountain town was too isolated to avoid pandemic

JACKSON, Wyo. — You think times are bad now? Imagine life a century ago. Death was all around. In early November, the Great War had ended in Europe, leaving 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians dead.

Then came the pandemic of flu. The first wave hit in March, and it was relatively mild. The second, far more deadly wave arrived in October. No mountain town was too isolated or too cold to avoid the quick deaths.

Unlike most strains of flu though, this one hit the younger and healthiest of people hardest, turning their own immune systems against them. Globally, 20 to 50 million people died. It was the worst pandemic since the Black Death of the 1340s.

Mark Huffman of the Jackson Hole News&Guide tells the story of his Wyoming community through the lens of an individual named Alfred G. Sensenbach. He had grown up on a tourist ranch at the foot of the Teton Range, learning to wrangle both horses and the dudes. When reporting for induction a century ago in November, he learned the war was over. Continuing on to Rock Springs, 180 miles south of Jackson Hole, he took sick and quickly died.

“He was a splendid young man of admirable character and habitat, and his death, coming when he was just on the threshold of manhood, brings general sorrow,” the Jackson’s Hole Courier said of the victim, who had just turned 21, at the time.

(Jackson Hole is the more modern derivation of the original Jackson’s Hole, as the valley had been named for David “Davey” Jackson, a fur trapper.)

Two people died in Jackson, one a 3-year-old and the other a man of 65, who had been in ill health. Six local men died at military posts, four of them in other states and two in France.

Silverton, Colorado, may have been hit hardest by the flu of any place in the continental United States. Jonathan Thompson, who once edited a weekly newspaper there, tells the story in his book, “The River of Lost Souls: the Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.”

The town, located deep in the San Juan Mountains at an elevation of 9,300 feet, had sent 150 young men, or around 8 percent of the total population, to Europe. Nearly half were immigrants or the children thereof, some fighting against brothers or cousins, he says.

Then came the pandemic. Only one or two people died that spring in San Juan County. Then, in mid-October, many people gathered to celebrate what turned out to be premature reports of the war’s end. A day or two later, the symptoms surfaced: the ache of the back, the scratch in the throat, feverish hot flashes. “Within days, many of the people who had celebrated that night would be dead.”

When the dying ended, the last of the bodies were stacked outside the town hall, awaiting temperatures warm enough to be buried. At least 150 people had died. That was about 10 percent of the population. In one report, most of these deaths occurred within one week. Within the U.S., only a community in Alaska that lost 85 percent of its residents suffered worse proportionately.

Communities tried to insulate themselves. Many places — including the Utah mining town of Park City — ordered people to wear masks when out and about. In Aspen, the president of the local board of health ordered all dogs and cats confined to their homes, reported local historian Tim Willoughby in a 2009 article in The Aspen Times. People took to shooting them, fearful they were transmitting the microbes.

The Colorado town of Gunnison was insistent on quarantines. Schools were closed, churches forbidden to hold services and street gatherings banned. Barriers and fences were erected on all highways entering the county. People could leave, but if they returned they were quarantined. Interlopers were jailed. These severe precautions, says the Gunnison Country Times, were credited with the deaths of only two people.

Guy Walton, a retired nurse, explained in the Durango Herald that mortality was about 2.5 percent, compared to 0.1 percent for normal seasonal influenza. In La Plata County, where Durango is located, there were 200 deaths in a population of 11,000. The population is five-fold larger now, so if the same proportions held, there would be 1,000 deaths.

Clearly more fires, but how much to blame rising temps?

TRUCKEE, Calif. — In California, debate continues about the cause of the Camp Fire that took the lives of 88 people as of last weekend. A group called Northern California Fire Lawyers blames negligence by Pacific Gas and Electric in causing the fire. Cal Fire has not issued a finding, however.

Many have called the Camp Fire at Paradise a classic case of people living in places they should not, amid flammable forests. But there’s also this fact: Half of the 10 most destructive wildfires in California’s history have occurred in the last two years.

Does global warming have something to do with this? Don Rogers, editor of the Sierra Sun in Truckee (former editor of the Vail Daily and, for good measure, former wildland firefighter) concedes global warming and accompanying other climate changes. But still, he is put off by California Gov. Jerry Brown and others “hollering about new normal fire seasons.” Making global warming “the culprit for each drought, hurricane, flood and wildfire,” he says, “only feeds the deniers and skeptics.”

Rogers wants greater acknowledgement of the natural flammability of landscapes. “Absent global warming, we’d still have Paradise teed up in this landscape built to burn, naturally needing to burn.”

A 2016 paper published by two researchers found that human-caused climate changes had more than doubled the area affected by forest fires in the U.S. West over the previous 30 years.

“No matter how hard we try, the fires are going to keep getting bigger, and the reason is really clear,” study co-author A. Park Williams, a bioclimatologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, told Science Direct in 2016. “Climate is really running the show in terms of what burns. We should be getting ready for bigger fire years than those familiar to previous generations.”

Williams and his co-researcher, John Abatzoglou, of the University of Idaho, attributed the other components of increase to other facts, including a long-term natural climate oscillation over the Pacific Ocean that has steered storms away from the West. There is also fire suppression, which had the effect of building up more dry fuel that will burn more explosively.

Along with others, Williams says that eventually so many Western forests will burn, they will become too fragmented for fires to spread easily, and the growth in fires will decrease. But, he told Science Direct, “There’s no hint we’re even getting close to that yet. I’d expect increases to proceed exponentially for at least the new few decades.”

POW chapter now getting up and running at Whistler

WHISTLER, B.C. —Protect Our Winters now has an organization in Canada, an offshoot of the successful climate activist group launched by pro snowboarder Jeremy Jones of Squaw Valley in 2007.

Organizer Mike Douglas says he’s been thinking about it since the 1990s, when he worked at Blackcomb Glaciers.

“Just watching the glacier recede summer after summer, and realizing that, ‘Wow, this isn’t just some far-off problem — this is something that we get to actually see day to day, and year to year,’” he told Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine.

“I think back then I always believed that the government is going to kind of take care of it, and I think in the more recent years I’ve kind of realized that, no, they’re not going to take care of it.”

While POW has made inroads as a climate advocacy group in Washington, D. C., the Canada chapter has a goal of getting people to “raise their voices and sort of demand action on climate.”

Redefining what is historic in a former mining town

CRESTED BUTTE — Crested Butte came of age in the 1880s as a mining town, first silver and gold, then, more steadily, coal, until the last coal mine closed in 1952.

With those structures in mind, Crested Butte adopted a code restricting modifications of older buildings in designated historic districts. The code includes buildings that are at least 50 years of age.

Town officials have been getting requests to declassify these newer buildings. Town planner Michael Yerman says many of them were poorly built and are not energy efficient. Plus, they do not really fit within what is generally considered historic. A proposed ordinance would amend this, allowing a process for demolition.

Individuals in affordable housing told to decamp

ASPEN — Two individuals in deed-restricted homes have been ordered to sell their homes by the Aspen Pitkin County Housing Authority. The board found both had violated rules of the affordable housing program by failing to live there full-time and not working in Pitkin County at least 1,500 hours a year.

The Aspen Times says one of the homeowners had a long list of excuses: age discrimination, several surgeries and a tree-trimming business that failed to get local customers. Instead, he found customers at Edwards, a community in the Vail Valley. He insisted he lived in the mobile unit near downtown Aspen the requisite 9 months a year.

But combing through public records, housing authority staff found he was registered to vote in the Vail Valley and had his vehicles and business registered there as well. His tax returns also showed the Vail-area address.

Leaving the hearing, the man asked the board members if they knew the meaning of fascism. The other homeowner forced to sell — at a maximum of $471,000 for his housing unit in somewhat similar circumstances — accused the housing board of lacking compassion.

A board member, Chris Council, disagreed. “I feel a lot of compassion but it doesn’t change the facts, … this program is designed for people who work here and we cannot make exceptions.”


A push to get more bike riders with studded tires

BANFF, Alberta — Only 2 percent of residents in Banff ride bikes in winter compared to 17 percent in summer. In an effort to reduce car traffic in the town, the municipality has begun offering rebates of $50 per studded bike tire, up to two a person. To qualify, reports the Rocky Mountain Outlook, the city wants to see proof of purchase and local residency.

Living not with wildlife, but near wildlife at Banff

BANFF, Alberta — In the perpetual tango between humans and critters, town officials in Banff and Canmore have begun talking about fencing recreational grounds and schoolyards. The purpose, explains the Rocky Mountain Outlook, would be to avoid encounters between people and wildlife.

Officials say elk congregate on fields and green spaces in both communities. They can potentially draw carnivores.

“Playing fields are effectively salad bars for ungulates and essentially bring them into contact with people.” But it also creates false habitat, said Darren Enns, development services manager for Banff and a member of a task force appointed to study human-wildlife coexistence.

“We’ve always talked about living with wildlife, but the committee talked about steering the conversation toward living near wildlife,” he said. “That’s a pivotal shift.”

Fruit trees are part of the same conversation. More than 2,500 trees, such as crabapple and mountain ash, have been counted in Canmore, at the entrance to Banff National Park. The fruit draws bears, putting both bears and residents in harm’s way.

It’s not that Canmore hasn’t tried to provide space for wildlife. There are designated wildlife corridors, which are nondeveloped areas that are supposed to be reserved for wildlife. Although as a practical matter, their undeveloped state makes them attractive to people, too.

But instead of hanging out in wildlife areas, it appears bears and elk are instead choosing developed areas, “probably for the food and security those areas provide,” said Jay Honeyman, human-wildlife conflict specialist for Alberta Environment and Parks.

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