Mountain Town News: Warnings abound of megafires in forests soon and in the future | SummitDaily.com

Mountain Town News: Warnings abound of megafires in forests soon and in the future

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

BANFF, Alberta – Across the Rocky Mountains, from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Banff, Alberta, firefighters are bracing for what could, in some areas, be a brutal season.

In New Mexico, which is coming off an extremely dry winter, firefighters from the National Guard and U.S. Forest Service last weekend were simulating the air components of a wildfire fight. The exercise was intended to ensure that, in real situations during coming months, the helicopters and planes don't end up colliding. The Santa Fe New Mexican described the firefighting effort that uses helicopters and fixed-wing air tankers as being an "orchestrated, if sometimes, chaotic, aerial ballet."

Colorado's driest spots are in the state's southwest corner. There, rivers around Durango and Telluride last week were running at 36 percent of average for this time of year. Klaus Wolter, a climate scientist with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science in Boulder, told the Associated Press that the warm temperatures at lower mountain elevations have been causing snow to melt earlier than usual, and that could worsen the danger.

Wolter, however, said further spring snows might dampen the fire risk. "It's not all gloom and gloom," he told AP. "It's just not a good setup."

In 2012 and 2013, Colorado had three massive wildfires, each exacting fatalities in the foothills along the Front Range corridor. In the aftermath, Colorado spent nearly $20 million to buy two fire-spotting planes and contract helicopters and single-engine tankers.

In Utah, a forum devoted to wildfires was on the community calendar in Park City this week. The session is titled "The Era of Megafires: Is Summit County Next?" The session was put together by Glenn Wright, an elected councilor in Summit County, which includes Park City. It was, he said, prompted by questions about whether wildfires that occurred last year in the coastal ranges of California could occur in Utah, too.

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In Alberta, the author of a book called "Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future," told an audience in Banff that people will have to die before wildfire policies change.

"We have a lot of false expectations about how we can deal with wildfire," said Edward Struzik. Experts think the number of wildfires will double in coming decades or even triple, he said.

"Big fires can't be stopped," said Struzik. "In the firefighting world, that's pretty much unanimous. Once it gets to a certain size … there's little you can do. You can drop retardants on it, you can hit it with an army of firefighters, but the best thing you can do in most cases is slow the fire or change its direction. But you cannot stop it."

Struzik said that 60 percent of all cities, towns and settlements across Canada are vulnerable to wildfire. Most vulnerable are First Nation communities, as Native Americans are called, in Canada.

"Right now they represent just 4 percent of the population, but 40 percent of evacuations that take place in Canada. There's something really wrong with that picture," said Struzik.

Fire resiliency programs are needed to parallel efforts to improve energy efficiency of homes, said Struzik. He also called for more fire breaks around communities, FireSmart work and controlled burns.

Struzik's comments parallel those of Arthur DeJong, who heads sustainability efforts for Whistler Blackcomb. Two years ago, he told a Whistler visitor that the single most important thing Whistler can do in the sustainability realm is to prevent its houses from going up in flames.

In the Canadian Rockies, a major question is what role Parks Canada has in mitigating fire risk in the national parks it administers. Struzik said elected officials must be pressured to give the parks agency "the resources and the social license to do what they have to do."

In Jasper, foresters shared their concerns that the town within Jasper National Park could go up in smoke. The Jasper Fitzhugh reports that the primary target of the 1,464-word letter that contained the warning was Parks Canada.

The foresters, who are from Prince George, charge that the fire last summer at Waterton Lakes National Park provided evidence that Park Canada is "unlikely to be able to address any mega-fire situation" in a way that provides for public safety. Jasper is at the early stages of a mountain pine beetle epidemic.

Heli-ski run named to honor pioneering guide

WHISTLER, B.C. – Early April was a brutal time for avalanches. In Canada, Whistler Blackcomb has confirmed plans to name a heli-ski run after long-time ski guide Lisa Korthals, who died in a backcountry avalanche.

At a memorial service covered by Pique Newsmagazine, Korthals was remembered as being at the front edge of a generation of women guides since around 2000. Before, women guides had to fight to be accepted as "one of the boys," Bob Sayer, president of the Canadian Ski Guide Association, said.

"This new generation came along and said, 'We don't have to be boys. Hell, no! The boys have to keep up with us,'" Sayer said.

In Alberta, a woman narrowly escaped dying in an avalanche at Sentinel Pass, near Lake Louise. She had been dragged 600 feet down the face of the mountain and buried under about 13 feet, of snow.

Tim Banfield, the lead skier who had triggered the avalanche, also was the lead rescuer. The victim was buried so deep that probe poles couldn't reach her body. They were guessing where to dig. They got lucky, and so did she. She had been buried for 15 minutes but survived.

"The survival rate at 2 meters is 4 percent, and we were looking at 4 meters," Banfield told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

In rescuing her, he was basically inverted in the shoulder-wide hole as he was digging and then trying to get her out of her skis, working in a handstand-like position. The avalanche victim did not want to be identified.

In Colorado, two people died in avalanches in the last big storm sequence, the first a skier in a backcountry area adjacent to Aspen Highlands called Maroon Bowl. He and a companion had detected a weak layer underneath as they traversed a slope toward a stand of trees, then they felt something shift, according to a report from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

"We're going for a ride," the second skier said, before the avalanche on the 38 degree slope let loose. He was swept into a tree and killed.

In the second case, a backcountry snowmobiler near Breckenridge was killed by an avalanche on a slope of 38 to 42 degrees.

Conservation easement put on Crested Butte-area ranch

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – A conservation easement has been placed on another parcel of ranch land between Crested Butte and Gunnison, bringing the total protected to 4,377 acres. The conservation easement by The Nature Conservancy precludes development on the Trampe family ranch.

"The easements prevent subdivision and development of scenic ranchlands stretching for 30 miles in one of Colorado's most iconic landscapes," according to a release from The Nature Conservancy.

The Crested Butte News describes the easement as being a multi-million-dollar deal. The town of Crested Butte contributed $1 million.

Ikon Pass good for only limited days at Deer Valley

PARK CITY, Utah – Nowhere are Vail Resorts and the new Alterra Mountain Co. competing more head to head than at Park City. There, Vail Resorts owns Park City Mountain Resort, while Alterra owns the adjacent Deer Valley Resort.

The Ikon Pass will get you into Deer Valley, the Epic Pass into Park City.

But unlike the Epic Pass, which offers unlimited access to Park City, the turf at Deer Valley is limited to seven days per season. The pass will also be limited to seven days combined at Alta and Snowbird.

The Park Record notes that Park City has seen a strong increase in visitors since the local slopes became eligible to Epic Pass purchasers four years ago. But the same surge may not result from the Ikon Pass because of the limits.

Erik Forsell, chief marketing officer for Alterra, said Alterra made the decision to limit access to Deer Valley because the company wanted to respect the resort's history of capping the number of skiers each day. "Our goal was to accentuate what made the resorts what they are today, and part of the Deer Valley experience is their attention to customer service and how many people are on the hill each day," he said. "We are very conscious about keeping what makes Deer Valley, Deer Valley."

In addition to the three Utah resorts, 10 other resorts accessible to purchasers of the Ikon Pass will also have limited days.

Nick Sargent, president of Snowsports Industries America, said the discount ski pass "takes a very premium and luxury sport, and it brings it down to a true middle-class space."

Telluride's next festival to focus on original thinkers

TELLURIDE, Colo. – Telluride will have yet another festival on its calendar this year: the Original Thinkers festival.

The idea comes from David Holbrooke, who for several years was the program director of the Telluride Mountainfilm. Even then, he had ideas about an original thinkers festival, going so far as to buy the domain name in 2005.

The website describes original thinkers as "iconoclasts, outliers, visionaries, bold, brilliant, brash, deep, diverse, disruptive, powerful, prescient, passionate, creators, creative and creating."

That would also seem to describe the filmmakers and others brought to Telluride every spring for Mountainfilm. A familiar name, Conrad Anker, the legendary climber, is this year's guest director. He'll be joined on stage this year by climbing pioneers David Roberts and Greg Child.

But it's been many decades since Mountainfilm was entirely or even mostly about mountains. Usually, the content goes in many directions. Among the themes this year is migrations, whether caused by climate change or war in the Middle East or those natural ones. Yet another theme is cultures on the brink.

Mountainfilm is held over Memorial Day weekend, while Holbrooke's new Original Thinkers festival will be in early October. He plans to cap ticket sales at 500.

Andy Wirth taking breather after 8 years at Squaw Valley

TRUCKEE, Calif. – Andy Wirth, given the job of leading Squaw Valley to become a peer with other leading ski resorts of North America, has resigned after nearly 8 years at the helm.

He said his retirement will allow him to spend more time with his family at a new home in southern California, but also focus on "some of my passions, including the active support of wounded warriors and environmental causes – advocacy and action."

He seemed to have his hands on many wheels all the time. "I always seem to be operating at 104 percent," he said in a recent interview.

Wirth had previously worked in various marketing positions for Steamboat Ski and Resort Corp. for more than two decades and, for a year prior to Squaw, was the chief marketing office for Intrawest.

In a press release, Wirth said among the highlights of his years at Squaw were the "acquisition of Alpine Meadows, the deployment of nearly $100 million in truly transformative capital and advancing the California Express Gondola, a generations-old dream of so many."

Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows are owned by the Denver-based Alterra Mountain Company.

The Truckee Sun notes that not all area residents will be sad to see Wirth leave. As chief executive he pushed plans to significantly expand the real estate offerings at the base area to include 850 lodging units and a 90,000-square-foot Mountain Adventure Camp, which is to include a water park, an arcade, a bowling alley, and a movie theater, along with indoor skydiving.

Also while at Squaw Valley, Wirth continued the work he had done at Steamboat, putting together direct flight programs into Reno, located about a half-hour away, comparable to what are found at Aspen, Jackson Hole, and many other resorts in the Rocky Mountains.

In that capacity he helped assemble the proposal that successfully landed Tesla's Gigafactory near Reno, where lithium-ion batteries are being manufactured. With that connection with Tesla, Wirth shaped plans for a micro-grid that will employ batteries from the Gigafactory.