Friday, June 1, 2012

Mountain Town News


Hot and dry, Colorado remains on edge of fire

RED CLIFF, Colo.—From the deck of his office, Jim Lamont can look down on the Eagle River, normally swollen in late May with melted snow from along the Continental Divide.

Water normally crowds the top of a large boulder in the river. This year, the water has been near the base, 2 to 3 feet lower, says Lamont, executive director of the Vail Homeowners Association. Vail is eight miles away from Red Cliff, though the slopes of the Vail ski area are but two miles away.

On most creeks and rivers originating in the Colorado Rockies, peak runoff shuffled past this year, barely noticed. Snowfall last year was among the lowest in the last century, and spring arrived early, almost hot. March in Colorado was the third warmest, with records dating to 1895, and tied with one other year for the driest on record. April was the fourth warmest on record.

The Eagle River, near where it flows into the Colorado River 45 miles downstream from Lamont's office in Red Cliff, is forecast to flow at only 43 percent of average. More broadly, the Colorado River basin is at less than 50 percent.

The last time Colorado suffered so severely from drought was 2002. That year, three major fires erupted on June 10, one of them the Missionary Fire near Durango. This year, by some measures, the drought is even worse. Plus, millions of trees have died since 2002 as the result of beetle epidemics.

While scientists debate how much the beetle kill elevates the risk of wildfire, several fires in the foothills west of Denver and other Front Range communities since March have escalated apprehensions. In one fire, three people were killed.

More wary of the potential for wildfire than he was in 2002, Lamont says that this year he has removed his prized photographs and important documents to a safer location in Vail.

In Vail, the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District has not imposed any restrictions on outdoor water use, but over the weekend urged customers to adhere to regulations that allow up to three days of lawn watering per week.

It could get wild and crazy this summer. Or maybe it will start raining. Right now, people are on edge.

Struggling trees can contribute to haze

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo.—Smog and haze in the West may be exacerbated by the epidemic of bark beetles that have killed millions of lodgepole pine as well as other evergreens.

Gases called volatile organic compounds are released from the holes bored into trees by the beetles as a defense mechanism at rates up to 20 times that of healthy trees at ground level, according to the study.

The study was conducted in part by scientist Gannet Hallar of the Desert Research Institute, which operates the Storm Peak Laboratory atop the Steamboat ski area.

While proving that infested trees produce more VOCs and identifying the type of VOCs, the study does not allow researchers to conclude how much the chemicals contribute to haze.

The paper reporting the results was published in the Journal of Environmental Science & Technology.

Clothing no option in Chainless Race

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo.—Somebody's going to lose an eye if there isn't more order in Crested Butte's Chainless Race. That's what the adults in Crested Butte are saying as they attempt to get participants to wear helmets and slack off the booze and drugs before embarking on the eight-mile thriller.

Also mandatory this year: clothing.

The Crested Butte News says that "costumes, carnage and fun have always been a draw" in the informal event. Participants remove the chains from their bikes, then coast from 10,000-foot Kebler Pass, shedding more than 1,100 feet in vertical before coasting to a finish in downtown Crested Butte.

Three serious injuries were suffered last year, requiring the use of all local ambulances to transport victims to a hospital 27 miles away. Had somebody else had a heart attack, he would have been out of luck.

The News notes that town and chamber officials insist on a cap of 200 racers and promise to install 100 bales of hay where the road steeply descends and then takes a right turn onto Elk Avenue, the town's main street.

Widow of avalanche victim sues ski area

WINTER PARK, Colo.—The widow of a man killed in an avalanche last January at the Winter Park ski area has sued the ski area operator, Intrawest.

The lawsuit alleges that Winter Park officials should have known that slopes within the boundaries of the ski area could have been prone to avalanche.

The victim, Christopher Norris, died Jan. 22 while skiing in a forested area called Testle Trees.

James Heckbert, an attorney on behalf of the victim's family, told the Sky-Hi Daily News that avalanches are not part of the inherent risk of skiing that, by Colorado law, protects ski area operators from suits.

"Ski areas are the experts," he said. "There is inherent risk as a part of skiing. You may hit a rock. That is part of skiing in a ski area. That is an inherent risk. An avalanche is not part of the inherent risk at a ski resort."

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center on that weekend had warned that triggering avalanches on any snow-covered slope of 30 degrees or steeper was likely.

"Triggering slides will be easy today," said the report.

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