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Summer's almost over (and fire season is here)

Jonathan Thompson | Aug 31, 2009 09:06 AM

Yowch. It's hot out and it's dry and it's smoky. Often, in this part of Colorado, the end of August marks the tail end of the wet monsoon season. This year, the monsoons were rather feeble, if they arrived at all, and during the last two weeks we've experienced some of our hottest days of the summer. Apparently, the same fire-friendly weather has been hitting points further West, too. Currently, at least 20 "large incident" fires are burning in the West, with the most, and the most severe, in California. Los Angeles' edge is currently getting singed.

The news and images from L.A. is harrowing, sometimes tragic: Two fire fighters were killed in a vehicle accident while battling the Station Blaze. Several houses have burned and thousands more are threatened. And as of this afternoon, the Mt. Wilson observatory and communication towers was in the path of the flames, which had charred more than 105,000 acres.

That's just the biggest fire in California. A handful of others, from the foothills of the Sierra Nevada near Sacramento, back down to the southlands are also threatening homes. Further east, a fire near Payson, Ariz., forced the evacuation of some 500 homes. More than 300 homes were evacuated near New Harmony, Utah, thanks to a lightning-caused blaze. Active fires were reported in Oregon, Washington, Montana and Colorado, as well.

Keep up with the latest on the fires here:

InciWeb gives a quick, up to the minute overview of current fires (Click on the fire's name in the left-handed column for specifics on that particular fire).

The L.A. Now blog has the latest developments of the L.A. area fires.

NASA has amazing satellite images of the fire and smoke.

The Sacramento Bee's "The Frame" photo blog has incredible images of that state's fires.

Large Fires 8/31




Eenie meenie (money) moe

Ariana Brocious | Aug 31, 2009 04:44 AM

In this era of hyped-up security concerns about our southern border, why would a remote Montana border station with a daily average of three travelers get $15 million of stimulus money? Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus say it’s because they asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to fund projects in their state, whose border has been "unfairly ignored" (see HCN's story).

Napolitano, however, denies politics had anything to do with how $720 million in border upgrade funds were distributed, which the AP reports resulted in out-of-order funding as marginal projects jumped ahead of high-priority ones. Yet the Nogales, Ariz. border checkpoint, in Napolitano’s home state, will receive almost $200 million, five times more than any other project, according to the AP.

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Funding to fight domestic violence

Arla Shephard | Aug 28, 2009 09:51 AM

In recent weeks, the Obama administration has made safety on Indian reservations a major priority, doling out a slew of grants to tribes all over the West.

"The Department of Justice is well aware that Indian Country is struggling with complex law enforcement issues involving violent crime, violence against women and crimes against children, and that tribal communities are doing what they can with limited resources," said Deputy Attorney General David Ogden in a press release. 

Thirty-four percent of Indian or Alaska Native women will be raped or sexually assaulted during their lifetimes, compared to the national average of 21 percent, and 39 percent of Indian women will suffer domestic violence, compared to 25 percent nationally. 

Tribes in North and South Dakota received more than $1 million for shelters and domestic violence programsfour New Mexico tribes were awarded $1.2 million for equipment and law enforcement officers and the La Jolla band of Luiseno Indians in California received $400,000 for a domestic violence program

Most recently, the Dept. of Justice announced that 16 tribal communities in Washington will receive more than $5 million, primarily for the addition of new police officers and domestic violence programs, funded by the Justice Department's Office on Violence Against Women

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Down and out

Cally Carswell | Aug 28, 2009 07:25 AM

Joe Griego hasn't worked in nine months. He hasn't been able to do much since a bull crushed his ribs and damaged his spinal cord while he was on the clock at a New Mexico dairy.

He hasn't been sitting around milking workers' compensation checks while he recovers, either. In fact, Griego's had little help paying off more than $30,000 in medical bills because New Mexico's workers' comp law doesn’t mandate coverage for farm workers—an injustice a lawsuit filed against the state this week on Griego’s behalf intends to right.

The complaint contends that the exclusion violates farm workers' rights to equal protection under the New Mexico Constitution, and shines another spotlight on the vulnerabilities of the West’s agricultural workforce, covered in HCN’s recent feature, The Dark Side of Dairies

Griego's employer hasn't totally abandoned him, according to Maria Martinez, a staff attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which filed the suit. The dairy's insurance covered $5,000 of Griego's medical bills, and he garnered $1,800 in lost wages, a fraction of what he would have earned had he been working.

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Milk: It doesn't always do a body good

Sarah Gilman | Aug 27, 2009 09:09 AM

If you haven't read Rebecca Clarren's excellent HCN cover story on the West's immigrant dairy workers and the on-the-job dangers they face, do it now! If you have read it and want to learn more, you should check out the story's hefty (and heavy) sidebar: A comprehensive list of deaths and injuries in the West's dairies spanning the last six and a half years. Click on the pink listings to see original accident reports and investigations.

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Fighting the fire

Arla Shephard | Aug 27, 2009 08:34 AM

"A healthy, fit firefighter is a safe firefighter."

This is what Stan Palmer, a member of the Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group's Safety and Health Working Team tells me when I ask about firefighter fatalities (See the related infographic on the top five causes of firefighter deaths since 1910). Over the years, firefighters in the West have died in numerous ways: brain aneurysms, asphyxiation, falling rocks; the gruesome list goes on and on

But through efforts of the NWCG team, there have been major improvements in firefighting safety measures and firefighter nutrition. Usually, significant changes are made after extreme wildfires lead to numerous fatalities.

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Pot season in the parks

Marty Durlin | Aug 27, 2009 07:54 AM

High Country News reported this phenomenon four years ago, in a piece by Adam Burke called The Public Lands' Big Cash Crop. But this year the story is making big headlines around the West as huge gardens of marijuana are discovered and destroyed on public land from California to Colorado. The Denver Post reported today that more than 20,000 marijuana plants have been found this summer on Colorado's national forest land -- most recently in Pike National Forest on Friday, where 14,500 plants along with garbage, a drying shed, a rifle and propane tanks were recovered. The Post says the pot garden -- about the size of a football field -- could be the largest marijuana-growing operation ever found in the state.

Michael Skinner, assistant agent in charge of the USFS Rocky Mountain Region, says the huge operation indicates that Mexican drug cartels "have discovered the Rocky Mountains." Skinner has requested $100,000 to cover costs for searching for the marijuana farms -- but with only 29 rangers overseeing more than 14 million acres of forests and grasslands in the state, the odds are against success.

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Classroom innovation

Ariana Brocious | Aug 25, 2009 08:15 AM

In eastern Idaho, one small rural school recently gained international fame. In late July, the Teton Valley Community School of Victor, Idaho, was recognized as one of eight finalists in the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom. The competition, sponsored by Architecture for Humanity, received 400 submissions from 65 countries.

Finalists included two other U.S. teams as well as teams from Colombia, India and the U.K. The winning team, to be announced in September, will be awarded $5,000 dollars and the partnering school will receive $50,000 to carry out the design.

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Nestle water plan approved

Ed Quillen | Aug 24, 2009 08:25 AM

    Last week, Nestle received approval to tap mountain spring water and haul it to Denver for bottling and distribution under its Arrowhead label.
    The approval came from a unanimous board of Chaffee County Commissioners, following months of deliberations and lengthy hearings. Chaffee County, with about 15,000 residents, sits along the Arkansas River in central Colorado.
    The county's two largest settlements are Salida, the county seat, and Buena Vista, about 25 miles north. The springs at issue are between the two towns on the east side of the Arkansas River, and were once used to feed a private fish hatchery.
    Nestle plans to take about 125 gallons a minute from one or two wells that will tap the same aquifer that supplies the springs. The water will be piped four miles to a loading terminal at the Johnson Village truck stop (the intersection of U.S. 24 and U.S. 285 at the foot of Trout Creek Pass), then loaded into tankers (about 25 per day) and trucked 120 miles to Denver.
    Chaffee County Commissioners attached a host of conditions -- 44 in 11 pages -- to the permit for a land-use change. The stipulations range from monitoring wells to the hiring of locals for construction and truck-driving. Nestle will replace the water (200 acre-feet a year) it is taking from the Arkansas River with Western Slope water it has leased from the city of Aurora, a Denver suburb with more water rights than it needs right now, on account of the housing slump.
    Nestle's proposal inspired plenty of local controversy, although that may not be the right word for it, since almost everybody who addressed the topic was against it.
    There were objections to bottled water in general, and to Nestle as a multi-national preying on a rural area. And, of course, to exporting water, although that's what rural areas do, except they often put the water in potato skins or yearling steers first.
    Then there were alarming stories about Nestle operations in California and Michigan, with the fear that once the camel got his nose under our tent, he'd drink it dry.
    Now, Colorado's arcane and complicated water laws come in for a lot of criticism. But the water laws are set up to protect existing water rights from being injured by developments like Nestle's, and so I have trouble imagining some dark scenario where the Arkansas River bed is dry one afternoon because Nestle is hauling it all to its bottling plant.
    Thus it appears to me that the Chaffee County Commissioners did the best within their powers; they made the best deal they could with Nestle and avoided what could be some very costly litigation.
    I did read some commentary about how Chaffee County could become famous as the place that "Just said no" to Nestle, but I didn't see any offers to help finance the lawsuits that would inevitably emerge. And I sure don't want my local taxes increased for a court battle with Nestle.
    I've joked before that rural areas have two major exports -- water and smart kids, and they don't get a nickel for either. At least this time around, the county got something, even if it may turn out not to be enough.
    Besides, "the market" may resolve the bottled-water issue. According to the Wall Street Journal, Nestle's profits dropped in the first half of 2009 as compared to a year earlier, primarily on account of declining sales of bottled water because recession-era customers are going back to tap water, and the trend is expected to continue.


"Don't lie for the other guy"

Marty Durlin | Aug 21, 2009 05:25 AM

Sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, and the Arizona Attorney General's Office, a new campaign aims to slow the flow of guns bought in Arizona and smuggled into Mexico.

"Don't lie for the other guy" is currently emblazoned on 92 Tucson billboards and repeated through public service announcements in Spanish and English, reminding people that buying guns and then selling them to someone buying for drug cartels is a federal felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Of the guns recovered in Mexican crimes that have been traced in the past three years, more than 90 percent came from the United States, according to the ATF -- most from Texas and Arizona.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation is a trade association for the firearms industry, and it's spending $500,000 to roll out the "Don't lie for the other guy" campaign in the border states this summer. Since the "Don't lie" program began in 2000, the NSSF has provided nearly half of the $4.3 million it has cost, with the Department of Justice providing the rest. The NSSF has also worked with the ATF to help gun dealers detect "straw-man buyers."

"We don't want the industry or the dealers to get a black eye or be perceived as the problem here. In fact, the dealers are part of the solution. Dealers are very receptive to the program. They don't want to be associated with a gun that was used to kill somebody," Lawrence Keane, senior vice president of the NSSF, told the Arizona Daily Star.

According to the ATF, there are 7,300 licensed retail gun dealers and pawn brokers operating in the Southwest border region.


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