Heard around the West

  • Lightning storm north of Tucson in Avra Valley, Ariz.

    Wm. L. Wantland/1989

You're in a car when a thunderstorm boils out of the West and rain pelts down. What do you do? Nothing, of course, since the National Lightning Safety Institute says cars are one of the safest places to be during lightning strikes - relatively speaking.

Two teenagers in a '92 Subaru near Jackson, Wyo., found that their car's antenna attracted a lightning bolt, which struck with a huge boom, recalled Krista Bristol, 16. "Everything went black, and then it went white, and neither of us could hear for about five minutes," she said. As for the car, the Jackson Hole Guide reports that it stopped dead and its antenna melted into the window. But the experts may be right: Though tingling and awed, Bristol and 14-year-old Renee McKinley emerged unscathed.

Here's a test: Who's the big bad wolf in Montana? If you're a cattle rancher, the answer isn't one of the 80 or so wolves restored to the Yellowstone area by federal biologists; it's more likely Rover or Fido. In 1997, Agriculture Department statistics for Montana reveal that dogs killed more than 2,000 livestock, while wolves knocked off only 41 lambs or sheep and 18 calves or cows. And it's coyotes who remain the most efficient killers of sheep, with their annual take hovering at about 28,000. A nonprofit group that supports wolves by buying their radio collars, Yellowstone Wolf Tracker, keeps up-to-date predation statistics on its Web site: www.wolftracker.com

How do you celebrate your town's 100th birthday? Smash up some farm machinery. That's what dryland farmers in rural Washington state decided to do earlier this summer, holding their scrap-metal festival at the rodeo arena in Lind, Wash., pop. 472, across the street from an outlet for brand-new harvesters. Some of the new ones go for a pricey $190,000. Combines entered in the demolition derby were worn-out models, the ones that usually rust into rural sculpture somewhere on the back 40. Newly painted in garish colors and given names like "Grim Reaper," the combines were welded back into running order. The helmeted drivers were primed to joust from tractor seats 15 feet from the ground. The goal: to outlast the competition and drive the last surviving combine. While some observers complained about the screech of bending metal and the smell of exhaust, 8-year-old Eric Hille crowed to AP that "the bigger they are, the bigger they wreck." His mom suggested it was "a testosterone kind of thing." Yet one of the 14 teams was captained by a woman, whose all-woman pit crew painted a huge harvester purple and called it "Raisin Cain." Hours into the heavy-metal combat, the field had narrowed to four; then, as night fell, the battered machines roared into a decisive collision. This time the wrecks locked in an unbreakable tangle and judges ruled it a four-way tie.

In Burley, Idaho, an 88-year-old driver managed to mangle seven cars without leaving his parking place. Dean Fox said he was trying to pull out when he crashed into a car beside him, knocking it into two others. Correcting that attempt, he then rammed the car in front, creating kind of a domino effect, police said. Fox, who did some $14,000 in damage, told AP the car just "took off without being in gear."

Collisions seem inevitable in the West, especially those between wild animals and tame tourists. Yellowstone has already racked up two painful bison encounters. One woman was butted near Old Faithful in May after approaching an animal too closely; last month, a Taiwanese tourist was not only gored but tossed in the air. Fong Chang was walking in the Canyon cabin area at 5:30 a.m. when the bison charged her. Yellowstone park officials tell tourists that the placid-appearing bison are more dangerous than they look, especially since they weigh 2,000 pounds and can sprint at 30 miles an hour. But some visitors either don't read fliers or don't believe what they read. They also believe that bears are dying for a handout - and in a way they're right. Tourists in the park were seen feeding a young grizzly sow and her two cubs a bag of potato chips. "The same three bears came back to the roadside (near Fishing Bridge) the following day, and again the next day," reports the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle. Rangers threw rocks and set off firecrackers and fired rubber bullets to teach the bears that people and food are a painful connection. Bears that fail to learn usually end up dead.

In Vail, Colo., black bears went bad and you can blame their mother: She taught the twins how to break into homes and raid refrigerators. But a defense lawyer could claim entrapment. Some residents refused to remove bird feeders during the spring; others neglected to bring garbage cans inside. That lured the clever predators to return and chow down on the easy meals. One twin went too far, however, jumping over a fence into a preschool yard, and police were called. They ran it off across Interstate 70, which may have startled drivers headed for one of Vail's numerous golf courses. State wildlife officer Bill Andree said the same bear had even begun breaking into homes and opening refrigerators during the day. Because it had lost its fear of humans, it had to be killed, he said.

More than one public official has cut short a brilliant career by faking a résumé. But a man responsible for overseeing a company's radioactive waste in Tooele, Utah, reached new heights of "let's pretend." After Alan A. Bargerstock told Envirocare of Utah that he was a professional engineer capable of signing off on company plans to handle the dangerous debris, Envirocare hired him, without conducting a background check. Had one been done, Bargerstock's non-degree and 40 aliases might have been detected. The lapse will be expensive. Envirocare must resubmit to the state any engineering plan for waste treatment that Bargerstock touched. The firm also faces fines ranging from $5,000-$10,000 a day for some 50 violations.

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumper sticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or [email protected]

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