Mountain Town News: As snow falls, communities prepare for next year’s fires
December 4, 2018
Even as snow falls, rising worries about fire season
WHISTLER, B.C. — As the snow falls, wildfire season weighs on many minds in ski towns of the West. California's Camp Fire has been fully contained, but the still-rising death toll, highest in that state's history, gives new urgency to planning.
Whistler has understood its vulnerability, already considerable but rising with the heat of every new record-breaking summer. Winters haven't changed all that much: more snow in the last 40 years on average and slightly increased temperatures.
But in summer, temperatures have increased 2.3 degrees C (4.1 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the weather records kept by Arthur De Jong, the long-time manager of mountain planning and environmental resources at Whistler Blackcomb. That summer heat has started to rapidly erode the mountain-top glaciers.
De Jong points to several reminders of the community's wildfire risk. One was a 2009 fire on the Blackcomb component of the ski area. Another was a fire in 2015, some 20 to 25 miles away, that behaved differently than what was normal for fires in coastal mountains. It burned more intensely, similar to fires in the interior of British Columbia.
Then there has been the smoke. British Columbia set a record for the number of wildfires this year, breaking the record set last year. Five of the top 10 years for fire in the province since 1950 have been in this decade. The smoke hasn't dampened summer tourism in Whistler, but it has adulterated the experience. For weeks the smoke has been like a cotton gauze draped over the community's spectacular mountains.
Whistler has been taking steps to reduce its risks. It has a goal of thinning 30 hectares (75 acres) of forested areas along the inhabited interface each year, but also 40 hectares (100 acres) of fuel breaks. But this is dwarfed by the 1,200 hectares (3,00 acres) within municipal boundaries recommended for treatment.
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What has been done has been remarkable, says De Jong, but what remains to be done is daunting. The pace must be accelerated.
Recently elected to the municipal council, De Jong has been given the role of looking after environmental matters. The most sustainable action that Whistler can take, he says, will be to prevent the community from going up in smoke.
What will Whistler do? Locals have a high awareness of the community's risk, he says. There has been broad participation in a chipping program. Trees and other vegetation near homes can be taken to a chipper. The chips can be used for landscaping mulch or as an amendment in composting.
For reasons unclear, second-home owners—most of them from metropolitan Vancouver—have been resistant to vegetative removal.
But the pace of thinning needs to be stepped up, De Jong believes. As the younger trees that most need to be removed have relatively little value, the thinning need to be subsidized. The province needs to be persuaded that it should absorb more of the cost, he says.
Despite the smoke, Whistler's longer, hotter summers are good for tourism. But the bigger picture is of rising temperatures that have outpaced the original projections of climate scientists. Feedback loops —such as thawing methane, a potent greenhouse gas—have caused the International Panel on Climate Change to warn that warming must be contained within 1.5 degrees C, instead of the previous 2 degrees C.
Wildfire, says De Jong, is by far the most compelling statement on why greenhouse gas emissions must be slowed.
South of the parallel
Whitefish, the Montana ski town, has also been talking about wildfire even as snow blankets Big Mountain, as the ski area used to be known.
At a recent meeting covered by the Whitefish Pilot, City Councilor Richard Hildner suggested that regulations that might be considered "government overreach" by some would actually be in the public's best interests. He was talking about building regulations and yard maintenance requirements.
He also pointed to the probability of a big fire at the ski area. The last big fire occurred just about a century ago. "So if the fire rotation is about 120 years in the lodgepole pine, we're getting to that point again where we can expect fire to again sweep across the face of Big Mountain," he said. "What do we do economically when that happens?"
Nearby Glacier National Park has had moderate-sized fires during each the last two years. Jeff Mow, the park superintendent, said the relatively low elevation of Glacier, as compared to other parks in the Rocky Mountains, makes it more vulnerable to wildfire potential. Also contributing to the risk are the longer, warmer summers.
Back in Banff
In Canada, from a base near Banff National Park, glaciologist Shawn Marshall has been studying the effect of smoke and ash from wildfires along with rising global temperatures on glaciers.
"A big fire year is a really bad year for glaciers in the Rockies," he said at an August presentation covered by the Rocky Mountain Outlook.
When ash and debris from wildfires lands on the surface of glaciers, he explains, they cause the glaciers to absorb more solar radiation, hastening the melting process.
Rising temperatures already imperil glaciers. Those in Glacier National Park will likely soon disappear, he said. Those in Canada will likely persist because they are larger and at higher elevations, but they will certainly shrivel, particularly if greenhouse gas emissions continue to accumulate as they have been. "We may get down to losing about 95 to 90 percent of the ice in the Rockies by the end of the century," he said in remarks delivered in August.
Marshall said when he began studying glaciers 25 years ago, he thought they were permanent parts of the landscape. "Now this idea that I might a outlive some of the glaciers I am studying is a bit disturbing."
Grizzly bears still out and about, as hunter testifies
LAKE LOUISE, Alberta —November isn't necessarily hibernation time for bears. A grizzly bear was hanging out along the Great Divide Trail in mid-November even as World Cup skiers were preparing to compete at nearby Lake Louise.
"Just because it's colder weather and there's snow doesn't mean that all the bears have gone to sleep yet," said Nick de Ruyter, program director of Bow Valley WildSmart Community Program.
Females with cubs typically den up by mid-November, explains the Rocky Mountain Outlook. Males, in particular, remain out and about as long as food remains available, sometimes well past Christmas. One male, nicknamed The Boss, often can be seen between Lake Louise and Banff as winter arrives.
In Montana, a hunter had a gun but still got banged up by a grizzly. Anders Broste was hunting elk near Columbia Falls, on the south side of Glacier National Park, when the bear charged. "It was on me in seconds," he told the Whitefish Pilot. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is actually happening.' I started backpedaling, trying to get the gun off my shoulder. I think I just fell to the ground immediately."
Broste told the newspaper he thought he kicked the bear a couple times, and then suddenly the bear ran off. He believes he surprised the bear. "I was in its territory. It did what a bear does."
Two more host candidates for Olympics pull the plug
CALGARY, Alberta — Two more communities have withdrawn from consideration for hosting the Winter Olympics in the next decade.
First to withdraw was the Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Coalition. It had been considering a bid for the 2030 Olympics, as Denver and Salt Lake City still are.
"We have maintained from the start that a Reno-Tahoe bid would have to make sense economically, environmentally and socially," said Brian Krolicki, the board chairman for the coalition, in a press release cited by the Tahoe Daily Tribune. "Given the parameters and conditions presented, we cannot make the numbers pass muster To continue, at this point, would be untenable and unwise."
Then, last week, the Calgary City Council voted unanimously to withdraw from consideration for the 2026 Winter Olympics. That leaves Stockholm, Sweden, which is reported to have shaky interest, and a joint Italian bid from Milan and Cortina D'Ampezzo. The Italian government has said it won't commit money.
The Calgary action came after a non-binding plebiscite the week before in which 56 percent of the city's voters said they preferred a no-thanks to the International Olympic Committee. The plans called for the city to contribute $390 million.
In Canmore, 45 minutes to the west, there was disappointment. The town, located at the entrance to Banff National Park, was to have hosted the Nordic events, as it did in 1988 when Calgary hosted the Olympics.
"I truly believe the opportunity and future benefits would be well worth the investment and the risks would be manageable," Mayor John Borrowman told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.
Others in Canmore involved in the effort to land the Olympics were also disappointed. They, too, cited the renewal that gearing up for the 2026 event would have produced. "In Canmore, you see the 1988 Olympic legacy every day and you understand the need to renew it," said Norbert Meier with the Yes 2026 Canmore group.
Assessing Calgary's rejection, the Toronto Globe & Mail columnist Cathal Kelley pointed to the economics of hosting the Olympics. Worst of all may have been four years ago. "Sochi 2014 was the point at which most people got off the 'Olympics are great no matter what the price' bandwagon," he wrote.
"Does anybody really want to host the Winter Olympics?" Asked the Associated Press in a Nov. 14 report. The AP's sports writers report one idea is to rotate the Games among just a few hosts, say, Salt Lake City/Park City, Vancouver/Whistler and perhaps Sochi. Another idea: scale back the games to fewer sports.
Last two years testify to the Vail Resorts business model
WHISTLER, B.C. — Whistler has been among the have-nots so far this season. Snow cover was so thin that Vail Resorts, owner of the ski area, forbade staff members on opening weekend to ski on the precious white stuff. Even snowmaking has been disappointing, due to temperature inversions.
It has been 15 years since coverage was so thin on the opening weekend, says Pique Newsmagazine's Clare Ogilvie. She also points out that last year was completely the opposite. Resorts to the south were still brown as a Thanksgiving turkey in late November while Whistler and other northern resorts were as white as a first-time bride's wedding gown.
This affirms the value of the Vail Resorts business model of geographic diversity combined with mandatory pre-season purchase of season passes. Rob Katz, chief executive, spoke to that strategy in an interview with Pique some time ago.
"Honestly, if you look back at the ski industry in the '70s when there were a few bad years, ski resorts had to do really Herculean things … to stay afloat," he said. "Our company and many others have been able to avoid that, even during tough years. So having that geographic diversity, where if there's bad weather in one place, you have good weather somewhere else, (is essential)."
Ogilvie points to the sketchy opening to Whistler's winter as fresh evidence of the resort community's need to diversify its winter offerings. As various studies have concluded, climate change will likely mean more and more "green" winters in Whistler's areas close to the valley floor.
Film looks at immigrant communities in ski towns
JACKSON, Wyo. — In places like Aspen and Vail, it began happening in the late 1980s, accelerating in the go-go years of the 1990s. White complexions were supplemented more often by brown skins, the result of rising immigration from Latin America.
The pace has accelerated and expanded to other ski towns. Many of the new residents have arrived, violating immigration laws to take low-wage jobs such as hotel maids.
Why don't the undocumented immigrants come in legally? That's among the questions of a new film, "The Quiet Force," that recently debuted in Jackson. The name comes from the title of a 2016 story in Powder magazine that inspired filmmakers Sophie Danison and Hilary Byrne to do digging of their own.
In Jackson Hole, also known as Teton County, immigrants make up 12 percent of the population, says the Jackson Hole News&Guide. Presumably most of those are from Latin America. How many are in the United States illegally? That's no doubt very hard to say. The Pew Research Center estimated that 5 percent of U.S. employees in 2014 were unauthorized immigrants.
No place on campuses in Colorado to vape or smoke
DURANGO, Colo. — At least one college library in Colorado used to have a room reserved for smokers. Presumably that smoking room at Colorado State University was long ago removed.
By January, all smoking on that campus as well as all other state-supported college campuses, including those in Colorado mountain towns, will be entirely off-limits to smoking as well as vaping and e-cigarettes. Outgoing Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper issued an executive order on Nov. 2, extending the current ban within buildings to the grounds of state buildings, including colleges.
That includes Fort Lewis College in Durango, Western State in Gunnison, and the various branches of Colorado Mountain College.