Mountain Town News: Smoke in the air of many resort towns | ParkRecord.com

Mountain Town News: Smoke in the air of many resort towns

A roundup of news from other ski resort communities

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Smoke in the air and fire in the news in many towns

WHISTLER, B.C. — Forests fires were much in the news last week, just as smoke was much in the air around many mountain towns.

At Whistler, the fire was small, just one hectare, or not quite 2.5 acres. But municipal officials and Pique Newsmagazine cited it as a warning.

Since 2009, the municipality has spent $1.7 million for what is called, with clinical blandness, vegetative manipulation. In other words, they cut trees. Last year, the municipal council commissioned another study, which concluded that about 4,000 hectares (9,900 acres) of provincial land — something akin to national forest land — within the municipality were at high risk of fire.

Pique Newsmagazine observed that this failed to account for "all the mature trees and growth in our lovely neighborhoods — greenery that is cherished by homeowners despite its obvious hazard in a wildfire situation."

Even so, few homeowners have assessed the vulnerability of their homes through the provincial FireSmart program.

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The fire appeared to have started from the campsite of a squatter, somebody living in the forest illegally. "As the weather heats up and the housing market grows tighter, more camps are springing up on the outskirts of Whistler," Pique noted.

Peering over Whistler's shoulder are memories of last year's fire at Fort McMurray, the oil/tar sands town in northern Alberta, where a wildfire caused $9 billion in damage.

Like Fort McMurray, there's just one road in and out of Whistler. An evacuation plan is being prepared, and Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden told the newspaper that all three lanes toward Vancouver would be dedicated to an exodus.

Colorado had scattered fires near Telluride, Durango and Steamboat. The most notable was in the Tenmile Range near Breckenridge called the Peak Two Fire, because of its proximity to the town. The town did not seem to be threatened, although 500 homes were evacuated. It's not clear how efforts to cut trees after a pine beetle of the last decade may have reduced fire threat to Breckenridge.

In California, the drought is over but 100 million trees are now dead in the Sierra Nevada. The San Diego Union says some scientists believe Californians will need to learn to coexist with an increasingly flammable landscape, especially if the climate continues to change.

While homes themselves are being built in ways to resist fire, a fire official says that being among trees will always pose risks. The key is creating defensible space.

"You can put one of these homes in the middle of a forest and not have any clearances, and it's still going to burn," said Scott McLean, spokesman for Cal Fire, the statewide firefighting agency.

In Wyoming, George Wuerthner says it always was folly to expect that large wildfires could be eliminated. "Where and when a fire will occur is impossible to predict," he writes in the Jackson Hole News&Guide, referring to the forest of aspen, lodgepole pine, spruce, and fir around Jackson.

"Since you cannot predict where a fire will burn, but you can predict that you don't want a house to burn, fuel treatments should be done in the immediate area around homes to reduce their flammability, while the majority of wildfires should be permitted to burn."

Wuerthner has published 38 books, including "Wildfire: a Century of Failed Forest Policy."

Solar panels in Jasper generate surplus power

JASPER, Alberta — The roof of Jasper Junior-Senior High School now has 208 solar panels on it, enough to generate a surplus of energy when the school is not in session.

The project was made possible by a $125,000 grant from the Alberta Education Minister David Eggen, who said the solar panels help diversify Alberta's energy sources.

"You have the added benefit of teaching the kids about sustainable energy," he told the Jasper Fitzhugh. "You have all the science and math (and) social studies that's associated with this new direction in energy."

Cement plant near Banff studying low-carbon fuels

CANMORE, Alberta — A cement plant near Canmore, at the entrance of Banff National Park, has been looking into switching its fuel source to low-carbon fuels.

Cement making is an energy intensive process, responsible globally for about 5 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that cement is the most energy-intensive of all manufacturing industries and is unique in its heavy reliance on coal and petroleum coke.

Lafarge, the cement manufacturer near Banff, says it is investigating burning things to produce the energy: shingles, tire fluff, carpet and textiles, non-recyclable plastics, rubber, wood products, treated wood products, and renovation/demolition waste. The company expects to soon submit a proposal to replace up to 50 percent of its fossil fuel use, reported the Rocky Mountain Outlook.

Biggest income gap in nation in Jackson Hole

JACKSON, Wyo. — Jackson Hole may have the most dramatic geography in all of ski country. The distance from Jackson to the top of Grand Teton is 7,549 feet (or 2,300 meters).

After studying U.S. demographic reports, economist Jonathan Schechter finds that Jackson Hole, otherwise called Teton County, also has the greatest income inequality of any county in America.

Studying numbers from 2014, Schechter found that 8 percent of all households earned $200,000 or more, and they accounted for 67 percent of all income of residents.

Schechter, writing in a supplement to the Jackson Hole News&Guide called Compass, compared Teton County to other ski counties in Colorado, Idaho and Utah.

He found that Teton County is an exception in the wealth of its most affluent residents as compared to others. The wealthiest residents of the counties in which Breckenridge, Steamboat and Vail are located earn less than 50 percent of their counties' combined incomes. The wealthiest residents earn nearly 79 percent in Aspen. But in Jackson Hole, it's nearly 90 percent.

Schechter makes other observations to the effect that while all ski valleys of the Rocky Mountains have great wealth, Jackson Hole stands a little higher, with its only rival being Aspen. He operates a think-tank called the Charture Institute.

Self-governing council for homeless campers

DURANGO, Colo. — You heard about that permanent camp for the homeless located in Durango. There's more to the story.

After years of shutting down camps and having them spring up elsewhere, the sheriff's department said camps would be left alone if they were kept clean and the campers obeyed the law.

Then, last winter, La Plata County Sheriff's Lt. Ed Aber asked for volunteers at the camp interested in being on a council to help govern the camping area. The council would have to enforce several rules: no fires, clean camps and campers must keep to themselves after dark.

So far, this governing council of the homeless seems to be working. "I'm not getting calls nearly as much; they are handling things themselves," he told the Durango Herald.

Denver gets key permit to raise height of dam

BOULDER, Colo. — Denver Water finally has a key permit that it needed to begin raising Gross Dam, located in the foothills northwest of Denver. The purpose is to triple the amount of water that can be stored there, including greater volumes of water diverted from the Winter Park area.

But the city still needs several more federal permits and may get a legal fight. Unlike some water battles of the past, however, this one will come from elsewhere along the Front Range. Save the Colorado, a group based in Fort Collins and funded by New Belgium Beer, is threatening litigation. "We're trying to stop it altogether," the group's executive director, Gary Wockner, told the Summit Daily News.

Denver Water has been working on this plan since the great drought of 2002 caused city water officials to realize the vulnerabilities of their system. The agency provides water not only to Denver, but many suburbs, altogether about a quarter of all Colorado residents.

"While some may say 14 years is too long, I believe complicated issues deserve thorough study," said Jim Lochhead, Denver Water chief executive.

Denver has diverted water from the Fraser River and its tributaries since 1936 through the pioneer bore of a railroad tunnel under the Continental Divide. The water is impounded at Gross Dam. The dam already stands 340 feet tall, and Denver wants to raise the dam another 131 feet to accommodate increased diversions.

Grand County, whose water will be diverted, has not opposed the project. Some — including Wockner — think it should. That and another diversion through a tunnel under Rocky Mountain National Park will mean that 80 percent of water from the headwaters of the Colorado River will be diverted to the Great Plains.

These diversions were mostly engineered in the 1930s. "Denver had a vision; we had none," summarized Lurline Curran, who is the now-retired county manager of Grand County, at a water conference about a decade ago.

This time, Grand County sat down with Denver and brokered a deal. Denver gets more water, but it also agrees to work with Trout Unlimited and other local groups to try to take the water in ways that are least impactful to fish and other components of the ecosystem. That program, called Learning by Doing, has already started.

The Western Slope altogether agreed to the stepped-up diversions in a broad-ranging deal called the Colorado River Cooperative Agreement. First reported by Mountain Town News in 2010, the deal provides $11 million in cash to Summit County to be split evenly among the county government and its four major towns for future water and other environmental enhancement projects. Grand County is to get $6 million. Eagle County and other jurisdictions also got set-asides.

Among those who participated in the deal was Thomas Davidson, currently a Summit County commissioner. He told the Summit Daily News that Denver's ownership of the water rights under Colorado law mattered.

"Denver Water already had these water rights, and that was something we from the Western Slope had to keep reminding ourselves of, each side had to give up or give in on things that we passionately felt about not wanting to give up."

As for Curran, she was recently honored by water agencies at a fund-raiser held in Denver. She stuck by her belief that Denver had the vision long ago, but she believes that this rectifies things.

Allen Best has edited mountain town newspapers for 20 years. He has served as managing editor at four different mountain town newspapers and is now living in metropolitan Denver. Visit mountaintownnews.net for more information.

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