Mountain Town News: Non-coal locomotives to be used during times of high fire danger |

Mountain Town News: Non-coal locomotives to be used during times of high fire danger

DURANGO – Do you need steam and smoke to make a trip on a narrow-gauge railroad authentic?

That’s the question posed by the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad’s purchase of two diesel locomotives. It also plans to retrofit a third coal-burning steam engine to instead burn oil.

For 136 years, coal-powered steam locomotives have been chugging along the rails between Durango and Silverton, the one-time mining town. Since the mining era ended, the payload has been tourists, now up to 193,000 a year.

But the 416 Fire that erupted on June 1 along the tracks near Hermosa, about 10 miles north of Durango, caused the railroad’s owner to institute a change when fire conditions are high, as they were then.

Eyewitnesses claim they saw embers from the passing train create the fire at about 10 a.m. The Forest Service says only that the cause of the fire that burned 54,000 acres by late July is still under investigation.

This was despite extensive fire mitigation work along the tracks each year. In addition, each departing train is followed by two fire-patrol motor cars that carry a water tank and fire pump. A helicopter has also been added to follow the train on its 45-mile run to Silverton. All of this has occurred for the better part of a decade.

Al Harper, the owner of the railroad, told the Durango Telegraph last week that the new locomotives being manufactured in South Carolina that do not spew embers were what needed to be done. “We want to be good neighbors,” he said.

One railroad enthusiast in Chicago, told of the change by Mountain Town News, expressed disappointment. He said the authenticity of the steam-powered locomotive was responsible for at least a quarter of the trip’s value.

Christian Robbins, marketing director for the Durango and Silverton, said polling conducted in previous years found that for a majority of customers the scenery is what draws them, not the historical accuracy of the locomotives.

For 90 percent of customers, the steam-powered locomotives are not central to their interest. Fans of historical accuracy will be advised to plan trips when fire danger is low. The trains operate year-round, but 90 percent of business occurs from May through September. The trains to Silverton continue through October. During winter and early spring, trains go only about halfway to Silverton, to Cascade Canyon.

The train is an important part of the tourism draw for both Durango and Silverton. Robbins said the estimated impact is $190 to $200 million for the two towns. Robbins says the estimated economic impact to the two communities of the disruptions has been estimated at $30 million for June alone. July may have been disrupted just as much, he says.

The train had to cease operations for an extended period during the fire. Then mudslides resulting from the fire damaged the tracks, forcing abbreviated train rides.

But switching to diesel or oil-powered trains, even if just during periods of high wildfire risk, will require different marketing, says Robbins. Marketing materials in the past have emphasized the coal-fired steam locomotives. That will be replaced by an emphasis on other aspects of the train-riding experience.

Missy Votel, publisher of the Telegraph, says she thinks most locals see this investment in non-coal as a positive. “While people appreciate the train’s historic nature and the benefits it — and the Harpers — have brought to the community, this summer is one we’d all rather not have to re-live,” she says.

Colorado has three steam-powered locomotives tourist trains that burn coal. The Georgetown Railroad west of Denver winds from Georgetown to Silver Plume. Another tourist train, the Cumbres & Toltec, crosses Cumbres Pass at 10,015 feet in the San Juan Mountains between Antonito, Colorado and Chama, New Mexico, daily during summer.

The Cumbres & Toltec has never caused a major fire in its 47 years of operations. However, as is common with steam railroads, very small fires have occasionally occurred, reports the railroad operator in a position paper. But these have been swiftly extinguished using fire safety measures. Each departing train is followed by two fire-patrol motor cars that carry a water tank and fire pump.

Nearby, the La Veta Mountaineer crosses the Sangre de Cristo Range at La Veta but uses diesel-powered locomotives.

Scientists now link fires with a changing climate

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The Los Angeles Times reports that scientists are starting to link rising temperatures and increased wildfires, something they were reluctant to do in the past.

“The regional temperatures in the western U.S. have increased by 2 degrees since the 1970s,” said Jennifer Balch, director of Earth Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “You’re seeing the effect of climate change.”

“Unusual warmth is now routine,” and that heat “leads to drying things out quicker,” said Neil Lareau, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Nevada, Reno.

The Times notes the grim totals in California from San Diego to Yosemite to the Carr Fire near Redding that has killed six people in recent days: extreme heat, the likes of which have never been seen in the modern historical record.

“The temperatures have just been almost inexorably warmer all the time,” said Daniel Swain, of the University of California, Los Angeles. Fires, he added, “burn more intensely if the fuels are extremely dry.”

Swain said there were alerts about record or near-record dryness in the vegetation just before each of the major fires of the last year.

But won’t increasing temperatures also bring more precipitation? In some places, yes, but Swain points out that Northern California saw its wettest winter on record in 2016-17 followed by its warmest summer — and then the devastating Santa Rosa Fire north of San Francisco.

“Temperature can clearly out-influence the precipitation,” he said.

John Abatzoglou at the University of Idaho was the lead author on a recent study that concluded human-caused climate change was responsible for more than half of the increase in dry vegetation in the western United States since the 1970s. The area charred by fire has doubled since 1984.

Scientists point to the increase in nighttime temperatures. This means the chance of a blaze weakening overnight is reduced. In 1895, California’s average summer minimum temperature was 56.5 degrees. Last year, it was 61.9 degrees.

Tahoe in 2017 had highest temperatures in its history

INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. – Water temperatures in Lake Tahoe reached 68.4 degrees in July 2017, the warmest ever recorded, according to a new report issued by the UC Davis Tahoe Environmental Research Center.

Geoffrey Schladow, director of the research center, tells the Reno Gazette-Telegraph a complex story of a lake that was long in decline because of environmental abuse now being buffeted by warming temperatures.

Warming water temperatures, he said, are contributing to a greater stratification in the lake water. Essentially, the division between layers of warm water near the surface and cooler, deep water gain strength. The result is less natural mixing. That increase in stratification helps to keep sediment that washes into the lake suspended higher in the water column, reducing clarity.

The lake pours over its rim at Tahoe City, a few miles from Squaw Valley. There, the daily minimum air temperature during the last century has increased 4.4 degrees. The average maximum temperatures has increased 2.2 degrees.

Since 1911, the number of days in which average air temperatures stayed below freezing has decreased by 30.

Here’s another metric for the warming climate: In 1911, when record-keeping began, about 52 percent of total precipitation fell as snow. Last year, snow represented just 31.3 percent of total precipitation.

There’s a different hydrology brought on by warming temperatures, explains Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of earth science at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

“Warmer conditions create more severe hot conditions during the warm season, less reliable snowpack, greater increase of flood risk during the rainy season,” he told the Gazette-Telegraph. “From the perspective of California’s climate, we are seeing the changes that have been predicted for three decades; we are seeing those unfold.”

Photographer gets license to hunt grizzly, but will not use it

JACKSON, Wyo. – Unless it gets slowed or blocked by lawsuits, Wyoming will conduct its first hunt of grizzly bears in 44 years. To that end, it accepted applications from 3,500 Wyoming residents and 2,327 non-residents to become among the 10 licensed grizzly hunters.

Among those top 10 with hunting licenses will be Tom Mangelsen, a wildlife photographer described as a “famous and fierce critic of grizzly bear hunting who has made a career of photographing the big bruins.” He has no intention of shooting a grizzly bear with a gun.

Mangelsen has a gallery in Jackson, Wyoming, but also two in Denver, one each in Park City, Utah, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado, along with three other locations across the country.

The Jackson Hole News&Guide explains that Wyoming wildlife officials will allow up to 10 grizzly hunters in the field starting Sept. 15. The hunt in which Mangelsen’s possible tag is valid will close after the first female bear is killed. Up to 10 male grizzlies can be killed.

“I’ve watched a hell of a lot of bears over my adult life, and I cannot tell the difference between male and females at 100 yards, 50 yards even,” Mangelsen said “I don’t know how they’re going to do it.”

After all these years, Telluride still short of cheaper housing

TELLURIDE – Despite an aggressive program of building affordable housing in Telluride for at least a couple of decades, it’s just not enough. The town council there has been talking about new taxes to provide money for additional housing.

One idea is to add a property tax. A second idea is to add a sales tax on short-term vacation rentals other than hotels. Sales on hotel rentals are already assessed a half-cent sales tax, as they have been since 1995, along with all other sales in Telluride. The money is dedicated to affordable=housing mitigation.

The Telluride Daily Planet reports some pushback to both proposals for added taxes. “We believe this will result in more dark rooms and dark homes,” said Bas Afman, representing the Telluride Lodging Association. His organization wants a more comprehensive plan to increase funding, with taxes to come more broadly than the short-term rental tax. Another speaker urged regional collaborations.

Sean Murphy, the mayor, supports both taxes and doesn’t think the higher taxes will discourage tourism. But where to build affordable housing? Todd Brown, a council member, notes that Telluride is running out of space for new affordable-housing projects. He, too, sees benefit in having a regional approach to affordable housing.

Melanie Rees, an affordable housing consultant in mountain resort towns, says that Telluride has had a robust affordable housing program that offers both for-sale and rental-housing targeted at different income levels.

“There’s a lot of diversity in the housing they produce,” she tells Mountain Town News. “It’s sustaining various sectors of their economy. They don’t just target the ski resort employees, for example.”

About a third of residents in the Telluride area live in housing that has been deed-restricted in an effort to keep it affordable. Telluride, the town, is connected by gondola to Mountain Village. Along with San Miguel County there have been various collaborative housing efforts in the past.

Will modular construction tame the price of housing?

WHISTLER, B.C. – Most homes are stick built. Even in the suburbs, where developers work from about five basic models, houses are usually built from the ground up, one piece of wood at a time.

But might modular housing be the wave of the future, at least in places where labor is costly?

That’s the scenario laid out in Whistler, where modular housing was being used to create homes in a gated community. The modular units come from Kamloops, in the interior of British Columbia. The factory is owned by Calgary-based Horizon North Logistics.

Bob Deeks, president of RDC Homes, a Whistler-based builder who has amassed a litany of awards for custom-built structures, insists that modular-home building is the thing of the future, not unlike the way that automobile manufacturing was a century ago.

“As they build more housing and they expand, they will bring these economies of scale to the table,” he tells Pique Newsmagazine.

A real estate agent in Whistler, Ken Achenbach, says a large market will remain for big, custom-built houses, “but for regular people, this is the future in the Sea to Sky,” he says of the corridor between Vancouver and Whistler. He says the homes fabricated in factories under close supervision are of higher quality.

Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency, faced with the skyscraper costs of building housing there, went with modular housing in a 40-unit complex. After that experiment, a provincial housing agency plans 2,000 such units across British Columbia.

Luke Harrison, chief executive of the Vancouver agency, says labor costs makes modular housing more affordable, because the units can be constructed in places like Kamloops, where wages are lower.

“We’re seeing construction costs on a site-built, wood-frame project reaching between $250 and $300 a foot (in Vancouver). To get an all-in solution at just under $200 a foot is incredible.”

Scott Matson, chief financial officer of Horizon North, the modular manufacturer, reports that 5 percent of housing in Canada is factory-built, compared to about a third of all housing stock in the United States.

But again, there will continue to be room for stick-built housing in Whistler. “There is always going to be that demand for a super-high custom product for a niche clientele,” said David Girard, president of custom homebuilder Peak Ventures.

“I think the modular homes, although they’ve come along way over the years, they don’t have quite the flexibility you do doing a custom home.”

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