Mountain Town News: Preparing for wildfires, Snowmass considers elevating itself, stores skip retailers | ParkRecord.com

Mountain Town News: Preparing for wildfires, Snowmass considers elevating itself, stores skip retailers

Allen Best
Mountain Town News

Why some mountain homes get torched but others do not

BANFF, Alberta – Pop quiz here: Homes can catch fire in three ways from nearby wildfires: A) from the direct flames of the fire, B) from embers shooting out from the fire, and C) from the radiant heat. Which most commonly causes a house to burn?

If you answered B, you're right. The source for that is Alan Westhaver, a former Banff resident who published a study for the Institute of Catastrophic Loss Reduction, after the fire at Fort McMurray in 2016. The fire destroyed 2,400 homes and killed two people. The community in northern Alberta is the capital for extraction of bitumen, also called tar and oil sands.

In studying that fire, Westhaver analyzed why some homes caught on fire and others did not. He found the level of mitigation work done in advance using the guidelines established by FireSmart Canada (FireWise in the United States) was a key predictor.

Westhaver said that is where work is needed, to prevent fires from spreading from forested areas to urban areas. "If we focus our efforts here, this is where we can make the biggest difference."

Banff, the municipality, was recently recognized by FireSmart Canada for its innovative work in its wildlands-urban interface. Silvio Adamo, the town's fire chief, said that wildfire preparedness is never completely done. "It is always something we are working on. There is really no end to it," he said.

Some of that work is in tending to vegetation around homes. In his work at Fort McMurray, Westhaver found untreated vegetation, primarily artificial landscaping such as trees and bushes, contributed to half to two-thirds of all the hazards within 30 metres (roughly 100 feet) of a burned home.

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"We love to plant these junipers (and cedars) right up against a house and watch them grow," he said. "That does not mean we cannot have them at all on the landscapes. But we have to be careful where we put them, how many of them there are, and how big they are."

Even with FireSmart guidelines, he said, there is no silver bullet in preventing wildfires. However, risk mitigation does help, especially in communities like Banff. It is surrounded by a dense forest of pine and spruce trees, most of which are over 100 years old.

"The most important challenge is getting your neighbours involved and participating," Westhaver said.

Community leaders in Jasper, 175 miles (298 kilometers) to the north have been taking notes on Banff's accomplishments. Among their tasks: creating a table-top exercise for how to evacuate up to 50,000 people from the town this summer, should a wildfire start racing through the beetle-killed wood of Jasper National Park.

"Greg Van Tighem, the town's fire chief, told the Jasper Fitzhugh that a major priority will be to get locals ready for the worst, so that officials can deal with tourists. "We need residents to be able to take care of themselves," Van Tighem said.

In Whistler, municipal officials are nudging along thoughts about wildfire. Saturday was a "Wildfire Community Preparedness Day," with the FireSmart crew hosting a walk-and-talk. Through early June, neighborhoods will also be encouraged to remove brush and tree debris, which will then be picked up and chipped for free by municipal crews.

Four years into the experiment, another Colorado town looks at possibly allowing cannabis sales

SNOWMASS VILLAGE, Colo. – The evidence continues to grow that towns that have allowed sales of cannabis products, both medicinal and recreational, have been enjoying handsome tax revenues.

Consider Steamboat Springs, where cannabis sales altogether account for 2 percent of annual sales tax collections. This is from just three stores.

But Gary Suiter, the city manager, cautions against expecting continued growth in tax collections from pot sales. "In the long run more and more cities and states are legalizing recreational marijuana, and over time, I think the revenue pie is going to dilute," Suiter told Steamboat Today.

Many ski towns in Colorado have held back from allowing sales: Vail, Mt. Crested Butte (not to be confused with nearby Crested Butte), and Mountain Village (next to Telluride).

Snowmass Village, just four miles from Aspen, deserves special attention, because it is the yin to Aspen's yang, more resort prim than Aspen's perceived mountain town party-animal. The town has not said flat-out never-ever for cannabis sales. Rather, it's been a wait-and-see policy.

A change in policy may be in the offing on May 14 when elected officials discuss a recommendation to open the door to sales from the community's marketing, group sales, and special events advisory board. Just be sure the stores are in unobtrusive locations, the board advised. It cited the loss of tax revenue and the simple fact that people are buying cannabis anyway – in Aspen.

Still unanswered in Snowmass and other Colorado resort towns is where will people consume it? In the case of edibles, it doesn't really matter. But even in Aspen, smoking of cannabis in public, including vehicles, is banned, and smoking of any kind is banned in nearly all hotels.

The Aspen Daily News posed this question of public consumption to Linda Consuegra, an assistant police chief in Aspen. She conceded the problem for visitors who can't light up. They do, of course, but rarely do Aspen police ticket offenders. "We try to educate them on it instead," she said.

All of this suggests a continuing double standard for alcohol and marijuana. Mike Sura, of the Snowmass marketing board told the Daily News he believes there needs to be more acceptance of public consumption of marijuana.

"Kids walk by liquor stores. Parents take them to restaurants that have bars. I don't understand why we're trying to turn Snowmass into Disneyland," Sura said. "To say we have to hide everything from them is ridiculous."

In Denver, state legislators this year have adopted a bill that, if signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, will allow adults at current recreational marijuana retailers to consume small amounts through edibles or by vaping. The Denver Post says similar "tasting rooms" exist for potential customers of fine whiskeys and craft beers.

One problem the legislation hopes to address, says the Post, is limited options for tourists and others to consume marijuana.

Legislators, industry observers, and others told the Post that it shows that Colorado is taking baby steps toward a statewide regime for public consumption. However, attempts to create regulations for full-fledged marijuana social clubs have foundered. Part of the hesitancy seems to be the continued federal classification of marijuana as illegal.

California was slower to allow sale of cannabis for recreational purposes but has moved more swiftly to allow on-site consumption and in private clubs or at private events.

Glass of water only upon request in Telluride as drought continues

TELLURIDE, Colo. – You want a glass of water with that burger in Telluride? You'll have to ask for it.

The town on Friday issued restrictions that are meant to get the town and its visitors ready for an emergency, if significant rain—or snow—fails to fall in coming weeks.

The Four Corners area, including Telluride, looks purplish-red in drought monitor maps issued by the U.S. Drought Monitor. That beet-red shading is reserved for the driest areas of what is called exceptional drought. Durango is also in the beet-red turf. Surrounding this dark red is a big pool of more ordinary blood-looking red.

Telluride as of last Friday had 21 percent of average snowpack for early May. At higher elevations, such as Lizard Head Pass, the snowpack was at 51 percent of average.

Restrictions say that filling or refilling water in swimming pools, hot tubs, or landscape water features with the city's treated water is verboten. The town's community swimming pool is excepted. Other no-no's include washing down sidewalks, driveways, and tennis courts, reports the Telluride Daily Planet.

Outside of Telluride on lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, campfires have been banned. The Ouray Plaindealer reports that the BLM is also restricting cattle that can be grazed on the pinyon-and-juniper lands administered by the agency.

Brick-and-mortar stores try new business models

KETCHUM, Idaho – Amazon and other digital retailers have been expanding robustly. Not so much brick-and-mortar retail outlets. Their future?

That was the subject of a session held in Ketchum recently. The answer there was that retailers have found the most success in migrating to e-commerce. But Bloomberg, in a report last week, cites reasons why brick-and-mortar may make a comeback.

One business based in Ketchum, First Lite, a hunting apparel company, has also shifted from getting retail items at trade shows. The new model focuses on direct-to-consumer engagement over the internet. In effect, retailers have been cut out as the middlemen.

And yet another company based in Ketchum, SCOTTeVest, is now doing 20 percent of its business on-line with Amazon after initially resisting the mammoth digital retail platform.

Still another business cited by the Idaho Mountain Express is that of SQN Sport, a women's activewear retailer, which has four brick-and-mortar stores in Sun Valley and in Malibu, Calif. It now has something other than four (a number was not provided), as the owner has downscaled the street presence in favor of a new business model based on trunk shows and a customer sales app.

The number of brick-and-mortar retail jobs in Blaine County has declined from 488 people in 2006 to 326 people a decade later. During that same time, the number of e-commerce jobs has remained flat.

Retailers considering less street and more internet presence should note that: e-commerce requires a whole new set of skills, including following social-media chatter that mentions their companies, Google's suite of apps, and voice-over-internet protocol systems. Plus, Facebook and Google update their algorithms quarterly, which influence how highly a company's posts are ranked and viewed.

But Bloomberg cites two trends that may slow the rise of e-commerce. At current rates, commerce will be 10 percent of retail sales in 2018 and 15 percent by the middle of the next decade.

To grow e-commerce sales requires paying Google or Facebook to advertise. "Instead of acquiring your customers via a well-located retail property with high rents, you're buying them via online advertisers. It's essentially the same thing as paying for rent," explains Bloomberg. And that on-lien rent is getting more expensive: ad rates on Facebook in the first half of 2017 were said to have more than doubled.

Then there's the cost of shopping. UPS is adjusting its business model to reflect the more expensive shipping to home consumers.

"Over the next few years as physical retail looks less daunting, and e-commerce more so, look for a renewed focus on brick and mortar."

Real estate sales sluggish, but prices continue to rise

TELLURIDE, Colo. – What's up with the real estate market in the high-end destination mountain resorts?

In Telluride and San Miguel, County first-quarter sales were down 27 percent compared to the same period last year. George Harvey, a prominent real estate agent, said buyers were still trying to understand how the new tax law will impact them. Plus, there just wasn't much snow until March. And then this: Lack of inventory.

In Aspen, sales were flat through the first months. In Vail, however, they outpaced those of corresponding months in 2017.

Prices everywhere have been rising. In Telluride, new and newer homes and condos are being listed at $1,200 per square foot, according to a report in the Telluride Daily Planet.

The average per-square-foot price of an Aspen property rose 14 percent to almost $1,500. In nearby Snowmass Village, sales were more robust, but per-square-foot prices were only $719.

And in Eagle, located 30 miles west of Vail, prices at one townhome project have increased from $330,000 to about $380,000 in the last year. That's a lot – although, perhaps, not exactly startling in Denver, Seattle, and other red-hot cities.