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Opinion

Cortez Journal Saturday July 7, 2012

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The combined Montezuma Journal (Established 1888), the Cortez Herald (Established 1908), and the Cortez Sentinel (Established 1929). Suzy Meyer, Publisher

editorial

Future fires Warm, dry winters, early springs, hot summers heighten wildfire risk

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he debate about climate change has centered around etiology, but among the other sides to the story is the ways in which Colorado’s climate apparently is changing have heightened the risk and behavior of wildland fires. Hotter summers, including this one, mean that more moisture is needed to grow crops and maintain forests. Milder winters reduce beetle mortality, and more beetles means more beetle-killed trees. Earlier snowmelt, sometimes accelerated by windborne dust and perhaps containing less snow to start with, results in drier forest and fire seasons that begin earlier and last longer. According to Princeton University geosciences professor Michael Oppenheimer, this fire season is “a window into what global warming really looks like: It looks like heat, it looks like fires, it looks like this kind of environmental disaster.” (Oppenheimer is also an advisor to the Environmental Defense Fund and a member of the board of directors of Climate Central.) If that’s true, it has serious repercussions. The safety of the wildland-urban interface — those forested places where so many Coloradans love to live — will grow even less safe as time goes on. Neighborhoods such as those that burned above Colorado Springs, have been considered relatively safe because they were suburban blocks with paved streets and fire hydrants, not remote homes tucked here and there in the forest. In the Waldo The issue: Canyon Fire, at least, that margin of safety was not sufficient. Wildfires don’t Some activities — personal play politics. fireworks, summer campfires — no longer may be supportable. The costs of preventing and fightOur opinion: ing fires will continue to increase, funding should increase ahead Neither should and of the need, not on an emergency those who basis. Regardless of what anyone plan for them. believes should have happened in years past, if westerners really want their public lands agencies to manage forests with techniques such as numerous controlled burns (which have become much harder to control) and discounted or subsidized timber sales to remove beetlekilled trees, their budgets will have to grow dramatically. Likewise, the hiring, training and equipping of firefighters will need to be ramped up. By the end of June, the shortage of air tankers had become obvious, especially when more planes were pulled from the force after a C-130 crash killed four North Carolina Air National Guard crew members in South Dakota over the weekend. The availability of military equipment and personnel is a boon to fire crews needing assistance, but National Guard crews are not trained primarily as wildland firefighters. (It’s worth noting that fire danger, and firefighting demands, have increased in eastern forests as well.) Forests capture carbon and contribute oxygen to the atmosphere; as they shrink, CO2 levels will accelerate the warming trend. Those trees may not be coming back. In a growing number of places, the climate is no longer hospitable to forests and may transition to smaller trees or sage and rabbitbrush. Finally, fire behavior will change, becoming less predictable and more dangerous. The Waldo Canyon Fire and even the Weber Fire provided evidence of that. Fire science will catch up quickly, but the bottom line will be that fires which grow in unexpected ways and burn actively all night will be harder to combat. Westerners and politicians cannot afford to let their distrust of climate science deter them from making sound decisions about forests and firefighting. If all of these changes are quickly reversed, wonderful. Until then, the lives of both firefighters and residents depends on the ability to acknowledge reality and deal with it appropriately.

commentary

For a day, Congress gets its act together So they can get something done, after all. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the constitutionality of the hotly contested health care bill, Congress put aside its differences for a day and passed a bill that includes two measures on which they had earlier deadlocked: transportation funding for the next two-plus years and an extension of a student loan subsidy. The $127 billion transportation legislation and continued, $6.7 billion subsidy of student loans for another year — along with a flood insurance package — passed the House 373-52 and the Senate by a margin of 74-19. Republicans — mostly tea party nocompromisers — cast all the “no” votes. Nonetheless, it has been a while since one has witnessed pluralities that large, with both sides giving a little to be done with these issues in an election year and get out of town. Specifically, the GOP backed off its insistence on construction of the Keystone pipeline over the White House’s objections in the transportation bill. Senate Democrats sliced $1.4 billion for land and water conservation. Both sides irritated constituencies — spending hawks on the right, environmentalists on the left — in doing so. Rarely does a piece of legislation make everyone happy, but that’s how things get done in Washington and in

Others say the journal star peoria, il. life, where only the unwise allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. This legislation was not ideal. Disparate issues were bundled under the same bill umbrella at the 11th hour, a practice this page would like to see end. The details were not posted for public review 72 hours in advance, though the bill’s excessive length — another grievance — made it unlikely many Americans would have read it anyway. There still is a long way to go before anyone can say we have good government in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, these are bandaids rather than true remedies or reforms, with big challenges down the road. The 18.4 cent-per-gallon gas tax tapped to fund much of the transportation bill is a dying revenue stream, and a replacement will have to be found for infrastructure investments; it’s not prudent to put those off. Student loans cannot be subsidized at this 3.4 percent interest rate forever; at some point our state and national politicians have to wrestle with the bigger issue, which is the soaring cost of college threatening to put higher education out of reach for many

Americans. That said, these measures were nobrainers for passage. The transportation bill means jobs — some 3 million created or retained — in a nation where unemployment still hovers around 9 percent. As to the student loan situation, who wants to get stuck with the anti-student, anti-education— anti-young voter — label in an election year? It’s important to note as well that these measures appear to be paid for, aligned with revenue streams, though in the transportation bill’s case about $19 billion had to be reprioritized from Treasury. This will be about it from the 112th Congress, with but 29 days remaining on the legislative calendar between now and the election. Not everything got taken care of — significant changes to some farm programs and an overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service are still sitting there — but it will have to do. It does go to show that Republicans and Democrats can work together when they want to, when they’re up against a deadline — student loan rates would have doubled starting this week — or when they have something more pressing, like campaigning, vying for their time. It would be a service to the nation if Americans could see more of this kind of cooperative action coming out of Congress, before things reach a crisis stage.

readerS write Job well done! Editor: Pouty little whisps of smoke rise from the dying fires ... they could not consume all they wanted and have laid down in submission to the skills and determina-

tion of courageous men and women. and informed on this frightening event. Thank you firefighters, local and from Job well done! distant places; you have saved us from the dragons in our valley! Cynthia Slyter And thank you to the Journal for your Cortez dedication to keep us constantly updated Via CortezJournal.com

commentary

A different voice on the phone

The television and photos he posts online show a wall of flames, smoke plumes billowing in the air like ominous storm clouds. It’s hot as hell outside, with record high heat, and the wind is blowing. And my young son is out there on a fire line somewhere, because much of the state of Colorado is on fire. My only offspring has talked about being a firefighter since he was in high school. He once told me his goal in life was to save another life. His high school senior project was all about firefighting. Now, after finishing his training last month, he is a 21-year-old firefighter on his first real job in the field, and where does he end up? Right in the eye of the storm — the firestorm. Taylor was on the Weber Fire near Mancos. He works for the

Idaho Department of Lands, but since there is no firefighting action in Idaho right now, all hands are needed on deck in Colorado. Taylor and the crew he is with headed down there June 16, driving with all of their gear. It took a few days for them to get there, and my anxiety level shot up as soon as I realized how bad the situation in Colorado was getting. My son and I usually have short telephone conversations. He doesn’t chitchat with me as much as I’d like him to. But for a couple of nights, I received phone calls at 10 p.m. Those phone calls are not from a boy anymore. This experience has changed him, and I believe it’s for the better. He’s definitely talking not about sports or anything trivial; he is dealing with issues of life and

Writers on the Range Linda Ball death. I listen, sometimes, to stories about the little victories they achieve. This is like nothing he’s seen before, he says. He’s on a line crew, and they work hard, long hours. When planes fly overhead dumping fire retardant, chunks of it sometimes hit the firefighters below and knock them over. He’s not complaining about the work he’s doing, though; I think he’s

awed by the scale of the firefighting effort. He was living in a huge camp, with fire crews from all over the country. Organizers brought in portable showers on trucks, and fed everybody nice steak dinners one night. The firefighters seem to be eating well — always a mother’s concern. But his back hurts, he says, after wearing a 40-pound pack for a week while cutting a fire line and mopping up brush fires. And his feet hurt from wearing the tough boots the firefighters wear, and, of course, it’s so hot and windy that everyone’s uncomfortable. Although the firefighters are having a hard time corralling all of the fires, they are saving some structures. One night, he said he and some of his coworkers saved several homes, and I could tell he

was stoked about it. I asked him if he was OK, and he said, yes, he was, and that he loved the job and felt like a real firefighter. Which, in fact, is what he is. It now sounds as though his crew will be moving on to the next fire soon. When I was 21, I married his dad and we bought a house and did all of the responsible things baby boomers did. His generation is said to be different; some critics say it’s taking them longer to grow up. Now my son is growing up at warp speed, and I am very proud of him. He has become a good man. Linda Ball is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a freelance writer originally from Alaska, now living in Seattle.


Weber Fire editorial