Population boom in West putting humans closer to devastating wildfires

DENVER – Nearly half the population of the West lives in an area with potential for wildfire danger. And both the risk of fire and the population in harm’s way are rising in this fast-growing part of the nation.

Eighty-four percent of the risk area has not yet been developed.

“Which means the problem is going to get much worse,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of the nonprofit Headwaters Economic Group, a Montana research organization studying wildfire risk and community development.

Since 2000, more than 1 million people in Colorado, 3 million in Arizona and 21 million in California have been threatened by wildfires that came within 10 or fewer miles of their towns, according to data from Headwaters.

The organization is one of several tracking the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, an area where man-made structures exist near or within flammable vegetation.

The nation watched in horror in November as the Camp Fire east of Chico became the deadliest in California history, with more than 80 lives lost and others still missing when the fire was finally contained after burning nearly a month. About 19,000 buildings were destroyed.

Shortly after 1 a.m. on Nov. 10, President Donald Trump tweeted about the Camp Fire and several others burning in California: “There is no reason for these massive, deadly and costly forest fires in California except that forest management is so poor. Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests. Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Firefighters work to keep the Woolsey fire from reaching this house near Calabasas, Calif., in November. The house was one of few in the neighborhood that did not burn. (Photo courtesy Steve Purcell)

Mike Lester, director of the Colorado State Forest Service, said firefighters often suppress natural forest fires to protect homes and people, but over time, that has disrupted the natural fire ecosystem, causing thicker vegetation and a build-up of fuels in forest areas.

It is important to invest in the health of the forest by removing overcrowded fuels, he said. But that can be difficult to do.

“We can’t let fires burn with overcrowded forests where people live,” Lester said. “It’s just too dangerous.”

In northern Arizona, a multi-government agency called the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, is thinning ponderosa forests from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico line in hopes of preventing devastating fires.

4FRI, which encompasses four national forests in that area, got its start in 2009 with federal funding, after years of historically large and devastating wildfires in northern Arizona.

Dick Fleishman helps manage tree-thinning operations for 4FRI. He points to one side of a fence where privately-owned land hasn’t been thinned. On the other, is a 4FRI area of large grassy expanses and distinct clumps of older trees.

“Here with the grassy openings, the fire would get on the ground and burn as a surface fire,” he said.

That’s an important distinction: Surface fires burn low and slow, while a fire in tree branches burns hot and fast – and is highly destructive.

Fleishman said the forests closest to where people live are the highest priority for restoration. Because not only would a wildfire burn trees, it also burns soil – which makes conditions ripe for catastrophic floods in the rainy seasons.

Near Flagstaff, homes are going up right next to national forest land. The space is ideal for nature-lovers, but nature needs to be managed. Especially when fire is as critical to the land as water and air, said Brienne Petit, 4FRI spokeswoman.

“We want more fire that behaves the way it actually should,” Petit said. “These forests need fire to survive.”

Arizona’s biggest wildfires, Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 and Wallow in 2011, burned for weeks and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. Part of that damage was to the water supply because the fires burned in the watershed.

Voters in Flagstaff passed a $10 million bond five years ago to help. But that alone isn’t going to be enough to treat the amount of forest covering the city’s watershed.

Arizona Game & Fish Department coordinator Steve Rosenstock said that ballot initiative is just one way to move the forest restoration forward.

“That is a very, very unique thing, and in these times when budgets are tight having that other sort of funding could make the difference between a project happening or not,” Rosenstock said.

Brent Poindexter is a volunteer firefighter in Colorado who moved into a WUI area near the New Mexico state line. He said he knew the risk of living among thick pines when he moved into Forbes Park neighborhood in Costilla County about two years ago, but the tranquility of the place moved him to settle there anyway.

“It was by choice, 100 percent, and it was beautiful here,” he said. “But you know that going in, that’s a risk you take.”

Poindexter said he knew it was probably just a matter of time before fire erupted in his neighborhood. He was right.

In July, the Spring Creek Fire, the third largest in Colorado history, charred more than 100,000 acres of land and destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes, including Poindexter’s. His three-level log house was reduced to ash and rubble.

“If there wasn’t these houses here, we would obviously just let it burn, and let Mother Nature do its thing,” said Poindexter, who volunteered to fight the blaze.

If more fires could burn naturally, there would be some benefits to the forests, experts say.

“Wildfire is a really interesting sustainability issue,” said Alex Hall, a climate scientist with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the UCLA. He also directs the Center for Climate Science.

Fires can rid forested areas of dead and decaying matter. They also can help the ecosystem balance because they destroy diseased plants and dangerous insects, such as the bark beetle that has decimated millions of acres of forest in the West over the past decade.

And the fires even regenerate seeds for trees that require intense heat every few years to sprout.

“Wildfire is a natural part of our landscapes, and our natural landscapes actually need wildfire,” Hall said.

But Western wildfires have been getting more dangerous and deadly. And the influx of population into the WUI, combined with the effects of climate change, mean those trends are likely to continue.

“Greenhouse gases trap heat, and that has led to a steady warming of the planet that has been accelerating in recent decades,” Hall said. “Fires are driven by dry and hot winds, and when winds become hotter and drier, that leads to greater fire risk.”

Climate change also increases the swings between very wet and dry years, putting more vegetation at fire risk, he said.

“We’re beginning to see the climate-change signal emerge certainly in the climate record, and then at the same time the fires are also becoming unprecedented,” Hall said. “We’re seeing fires that are setting records in terms of their size and their intensity.”

Reporters Lori Jane Gliha of Rocky Mountain PBS in Denver, Casey Kuhn of KJZZ in Phoenix and David Nazar of PBS SoCal in Los Angeles contributed to this article.

New houses, built to fire code, burned down anyway in Southern California’s 2017 Thomas Fire

LOS ANGELES – California’s building codes are not keeping up with the severe, wind-driven wildfires that are becoming the norm.

Ten years ago, the state passed strict new standards for homes built in high fire-risk areas. But even homes built to those standards were destroyed in last December’s Thomas Fire. Now, homes are being rebuilt in the same places, under the same codes.

In the Ventura Foothills, about an hour northwest of Malibu, four of the nine homes on Andorra Lane burned down in the Thomas Fire. Almost no one expected it. After all, the homes were brand new. They were surrounded by dozens of other homes. And most importantly, they met the state’s building codes for areas at heightened risk of wildfires.

Nancy Bohman, who lives in one of the Andorra Lane homes that survived the fire, said she was “totally shocked. Totally blown away, ’cause look,” she said, slapping the sturdy outside wall of her house. “It’s stucco and a concrete roof.”

Where you build your home is more important than what materials you build it from, says fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard with the Conservation Biology Institute. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/KPCC).

Very high fire-hazard zones

“Almost no one” expected homes on Andorra Lane to burn down, but at least one agency did: CalFire.

Andorra Lane is tucked into a fold of the foothills above Ventura, and the entire nine-home subdivision is in a “very high fire hazard severity zone.” That’s a technical term created by CalFire, and it applies to neighborhoods on the edge of undeveloped land, “the wildland urban interface” where severe wildfires are likely. That area is also known as the WUI for wild urban interface.

The term is important because, since 2008, all homes built in these zones have had to meet strict building codes designed to prevent them from catching on fire. They must have fire resistant roofs and siding; fine mesh screen on attic vents to keep embers out; decks and patios made of non-flammable material, and heat-resistant windows.

Built in 2016, the houses on Andorra Lane had all of those things. They were supposed to have a better chance of surviving a wildfire than older homes without those protective features.

“Nobody ever reads the fine print”

When the first residents of Andorra Lane moved into their houses in 2016 and ’17, few realized their homes were in a risky place. But buried in their closing documents was a small disclosure, telling them they were moving into a “very high fire-hazard severity zone.”

“We flipped through hundreds of pages; I’m sure nobody ever reads the fine print,” said Phil Azer, one of the four burned-out homeowners on Andorra Lane. “I think I was probably more concerned about earthquakes.”

His neighbors had similar experiences: Only one recalled seeing the fine print.

“I don’t think (the real estate agent) ever actually said, ‘Hey, do you realize you’re on a flood or fire zone, or anything like that?'” Bohman said.

The developer, Williams Homes, declined to comment.

Why did the houses burn?

Ventura City Fire Marshal Joe Morelli thinks topography played a role. The narrow valley that Andorra Lane sits in may have acted as a wind tunnel, funneling embers toward the neighborhood.

“Really what we had was something like a blowtorch going through our city,” Morelli said. “And even with the fire-resistant construction standards you can still have loss. They’re not fireproof standards.”

Researchers who study how houses burn say embers are to blame, not walls of flame.

When embers land on ornamental mulch, pine needles built up at the base of a wall or wooden deck furniture, they smolder. And those little fires can eventually ignite the house itself, even a fire-resistant house, especially if no one is there to put them out, as is usually the case in an evacuation zone during a mega-fire.

California wildland fire codes may also have weaknesses, Morelli said. They don’t cover wooden sheds, carports or backyard play structures, which can ignite, sending embers towards the house. Nor do they cover skylights that open outward. And garage doors aren’t as fire-resistant as they could be, meaning embers can get sucked underneath them, igniting whatever is inside.

Being new, the houses on Andorra Lane were likely some of the most fire-resistant in Ventura. But many of the older houses that burned in the Thomas Fire also had some fire-resistant features.

According to CalFire data, 80 percent of houses destroyed in the Thomas Fire had fire-resistant exteriors and 90 percent had fire-resistant roofs.

It’s where you build, not what you build with

To fire ecologist Alexandra Syphard with the Conservation Biology Institute, it’s becoming increasingly clear that houses built in risky places are impossible to fireproof.

“You can make a big difference in increasing the potential safety of your house, but you can’t guarantee that it’s not going to burn,” she said.

Her research has found that where you build your house, not what it’s made of, is the biggest factor in determining whether it will burn.

But city and state officials are reluctant to do anything that would increase the cost of new housing. Yolanda Bundy, the chief building official with the city of Ventura, said she’s just not focused on changing local building codes or overhauling land use planning at the moment.

“Right now, all the efforts are concentrated on helping people rebuild their homes, not to create more rules or regulations or more processes,” she told KPCC earlier this year.

The burned homes in “very high fire-hazards severity zones” will be rebuilt according to the newest codes, which Bundy still considers a big improvement because nearly all 777 of them were constructed before 2008.

Statewide, new building codes are adopted every three years. That means lessons learned from the Thomas Fire will not be incorporated into the next round of code changes.

“We’re constantly playing catch up,” said Pete Muñoa, CalFire’s deputy chief of land use planning. “We’re trying to be proactive to see how we can make homes more survivable by adding additional code requirements.”

But, he said, regulators also have to balance safety with cost.

“Depending on the pushback we get from industry, we may or may not be successful in getting codes that we believe are going to be effective.”

Many of the homes destroyed on Andorra Lane were ignited by embers, not by walls of flame, experts say. (Photo by Morgan Lieberman/KPCC)

What you can do

So, what should you do if you live in a high fire risk area, or are rebuilding your house in one? Focus on the area 30 feet around your house, said Tom Welle with the National Fire Protection Association.

The first five feet out from your foundation should be nearly bare, or only covered with non-flammable plants or landscaping. Beyond that, Welle said to “think about where leaves and debris just pile up because of wind. That’s where embers are going to go.”

Keeping your house from igniting is really important, Morellis said, because nearly 90 percent of houses that ignite, even brand new houses, are destroyed.

This piece is part of a multimedia series from Elemental: Fire in the Neighborhood. You can see a television show about fires in the wild urban interface here:

Profits and flames: Private firefighters an option for the wealthy

The fire season across the West has been brutal. In California, the Camp Fire and Woolsey Fire together left more than 88 dead. The two fires burned more than 15,000 structures and nearly 200 people are still missing. Huge fires in Nevada have burned hundreds of thousands of acres. Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico have all been affected.

Amidst the flames, a trend has emerged – a two-tiered system of private firefighting resources for those who can afford them, and a system stretched thin for those who can’t.

Troy Kurth is the CEO of the private firefighting company Rocky Mountain Fire, near Missoula, Montana. Members of his crew have the same baseline certifications as federal firefighters.

His crew works out of a barn with a sign on the door that says “STALLION Do Not Enter.” Kurth used to run 15 stallions each season before he got into the firefighting business.

“I decided to leave those (signs) up,” he said, after “we converted this horse barn into our fire cache and shop.”

And he says those firefighting services are increasingly in demand. In 2017, the U.S. Forest Service spent more than $2 billion suppressing fires.

Starting in the 1980s, the Forest Service began facing tighter budgets and more destructive fires, so it started contracting with private firefighting companies to help out. More recently, the private insurance industry got involved and started offering private firefighting services on its home policies.

David Torgerson is president of Wildfire Defense Systems in Bozeman, Montana – the largest private firefighting group in the country.

“This contribution from the insurance industry is here to stay,” he said. “It’s become the new norm.”

Torgerson said his company now is bigger than many state firefighting agencies. Like other private companies, Wildfire Defense Systems contracts with state and federal government, but Torgerson now also is working with about a dozen private insurers. Since 2008, he said, his crews have responded to more than 550 wildfires that threatened thousands of private properties. In addition, the company helps fire-proof properties before blazes hit homes.

He said most of the homes have been average value, not million-dollar mansions. Either way, he said, the more resources for these raging fires the better.

“Quietly in the background, these insurer programs have been growing and contributing in a strong way and creating better results to the extent possible and contributing to these incidents,” Torgerson said. “It’s really a win-win. It’s a partial solution.”

But how easy is it to get that coverage for the average homeowner? That’s not clear.

Insurance giant AIG describes its “Wildfire Protection Unit” as a “complimentary service.” However, according to its website, those services are only available to its Private Client Group, which is “custom-designed for high-end properties.”

AIG did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Eric Samansky is with Chubb, another insurance provider that offers this service to all clients in fire-prone areas in 18 states.

“It’s complimentary, so if you are a policyholder within those states, all you need to do is enroll,” he said.

But there may be another problem with any kind of insurance in some areas.

“The affordability issue is one that is growing here in California. We’re continuing to see prices increase,” said Nancy Kincaid, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Insurance.

Her state has more homes in fire-prone areas than any other. And homeowners there are having more and more trouble securing coverage of any kind due to increasing premiums, Kincaid said.

Carl Seielstad has been studying fire trends for decades as an associate professor of fire science and management at the University of Montana; he’s also a fire-incident commander.

This trend toward private firefighting is a reflection of our society, he said.

“I mean that’s capitalism, right?” he asked. “That if you have assets to be protected and you can pay for protection, that you would pay extra for the protection that you get.”

Whether it’s fair and equitable is more complicated. For one, nobody’s keeping track of the industry and who’s using the services. However, “even the perception that fire management plays favorites – whether it’s fair or not – erodes confidence in the fire management enterprise,” Seielstad said.

And he’s not just worried about the insurance industry protecting individual properties. It’s also the private money flowing into state and federal fire suppression.

“When does private enterprise start dictating how fire management gets done?” he wondered.

Fire and forest management already is an ecological and political issue, Seielstad said, so what happens when profit comes into play, too?

The private firefighting industry continues to grow. There are more than 150 companies employing more than 12,000 crew members, the industry’s trade group said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Rep. Raúl Grijalva and Interior Secretary Zinke trade insults

WASHINGTON – Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke blasted Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, on Twitter Friday after the congressman wrote an editorial calling on Zinke to resign “immediately” in the face of multiple, ongoing ethics investigations.

Grijalva, long a critic of Zinke’s and of his management of the Interior Department, said in the op-ed in Friday’s USA Today that the “sheer scope of his (Zinke’s) well-documented scandals” demand that the secretary resign.

Those include at least one inspector general’s investigation that has been referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, Grijalva said.

Zinke, in a blistering personal Twitter attack, said several hours later that it was Grijalva who should step down.

The tweet said Grijalva can’t “think straight from the bottom of the bottle” and that the lawmaker should resign and pay back the “hush money and the tens of thousands” of dollars that Interior has spent “investigating unfounded allegations” from Congress.

The tweet appeared to be a reference to news reports of a $48,000 settlement Grijalva reportedly paid a former staffer in 2015, who accused the Tucson Democrat of being drunk at work and creating a hostile work environment.

Zinke’s attack was leveled at a man who is expected to become chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee next year, the panel with direct oversight of the Interior Department.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke speaking at Grand Canyon National Park (Photo courtesy the Department of the Interior)

Even before the tweeted response, Grijalva vowed the committee would be taking a closer look at Zinke and his department once Democrats take over the House next year.

“Should I chair the committee in January, as I hope to do, those questions will only intensify as part of my and my colleagues’ legitimate oversight duties,” Grijalva wrote.

The Interior Department’s inspector general opened an investigation a month ago into Zinke’s land dealings in his home state of Montana – what Grijalva said was at least the 17th investigation into Zinke since he was named secretary last year.

The probe focuses on whether Zinke used his position as secretary to increase the value of land his family owns in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, by dealing with local developers and officials at Halliburton, an oil contractor.

Other investigations of Zinke have looked into whether he ordered climate change reports censored by the department, reports that the agency would spend $139,000 on three set of office doors and whether he was inappropriately promoting Make America Great Again socks.

Zinke has also been accused of using taxpayer dollars to fund trips on private jets, taking inappropriate amounts of leave and providing government perks to his wife.

The negative publicity may have attracted the attention of the White House, with published reports indicating that Zinke is among a handful of Cabinet secretaries the president is eyeing for replacement.

In his editorial, Grijalva said Zinke has not answered to any of the scandals, and “this silence is insulting to the American people.” He said stepping down to allow for some damage control is the least Zinke could do.

Grijalva also criticized Zinke’s management of the department, which has included the downsizing of national monuments like Bears Ears and plans to cut “thousands” of permanent positions, among other changes.

Grijlava said a resignation would not get rid of the philosophy that permeates the department, but he still thinks it is important for the Natural Resources Committee to take a stand.

“This is, I think, an alert to the Interior that we’re going to hold them accountable regardless,” Grijalva said late Friday morning. “We’re going to question that philosophy.”

When contacted for comment, an Interior spokeswoman said only that “The Secretary’s statement speaks for itself.”

Other members of Congress rushed to Grijalva’s defense, including Rep. Ted Lieu, D-California and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-New York, who joined in the call for Zinke’s resignation.

Grijalva said Zinke’s tweet appeared to be aimed at deflecting serious policy issues with personal attacks.

“The American people know who I’m here to serve, and they know in whose interests I’m acting,” Grijalva said in a statement Friday. “They don’t know the same about Secretary Zinke.”

Why does Raúl Grijalva matter for public lands and the environment?

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The Trump administration and Congress have systematically dismantled many Obama-era environmental regulations. Now, Democrats finally have control of the House and the committee with the most power over public lands – the House Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Raúl Grijalva of Arizona will be the new chairman, and he couldn’t be more different from his predecessor.

For one, Grijalva has been one of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s most vocal critics. Over the past few years, he has questioned Zinke about his spending on office furniture, his approach to shrinking Bears Ears National Monument, and about whether he suppressed scientific findings he didn’t agree with.

Zinke is the subject of at least three ethics investigations. As chair of the House Natural Resource Committee, Grijalva now has the power to push for more transparency in those inquiries. But Zinke is just part of the problem, the Tucson Democrat said.

“I think that if he were to resign or be sent away,” Grijalva said, “the legacy of kind of turning over Interior to the fossil fuel industry and the extraction industry is not going to go away. So there’s still things to look at.”

He was one of several members of Congress who boycotted President Trump’s inauguration in 2017. But he also made headlines when he worked closely with the current chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Rob Bishop, R-Utah, with Bishop, the current chair of the committee, about the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Now that he will have the formal power of leading a committee, Grijalva promises to look at environmental issues.

“What I think you can expect is a return to giving prominence to the conservation side that hasn’t been there in the last two years,” he said. “And any legislation that continues to rip away at our bedrock environmental laws, we’re not going to waste time on it.”

Grijalva said he also plans to focus on issues in Indian country, on protecting wildlife and the Endangered Species Act, preserving public lands, and the elephant in the room – climate change.

“Climate change has been scrubbed from the discussion,” Grijalva said. “Peer review has been severely handicapped. Panels of scientists have been eliminated and you don’t talk about climate change, you don’t talk about science anymore when you’re making decisions.”

He wants to change that. But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the industry group Western Energy Alliance, is not thrilled about a Democrat, specifically a politically progressive one such as Grijalva, taking the helm and, as she sees it, stirring things up.

She called Grijalva “extremely hostile to oil and natural gas development, economic development – ranching, mining, timber – any kind of development on federal lands.”

She said she’s not worried about losing too much ground, though – mainly because of partisan gridlock in Congress.

“It’s unfortunate that Congress cannot come together and find some compromises on natural resource issues,” she said, “but that’s just the nature of Washington, D.C.”

Others, though, have more faith in Grijalva’s ability to move things forward. Kieran Suckling, director of the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, is among them.

He argued Grijalva has “been able to broker deals Republicans both in the House and the Senate to protect the environment.”

Suckling is not a fan, however, of the current chair: “Bishop is really one of the most anti-environmental congressmen in Congress.”

Suckling sees Grijalva as an ally, and for good reason. Grijalva is on the advisory board of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute and has been vocal about prioritizing the environment.

For his part, Bishop issued a written statement in response to the transition.

“We look to continue being active next Congress as we move into doubling down on President Trump’s top notch environment and energy policies,” he wrote.

Whether he’ll be able to do that with Grijalva at the helm is an open question, but Grijalva is hopeful there will be bipartisanship on the committee. Still, regarding common ground with the former chair, Grijalva was modestly optimistic.

“We both like baseball,” he ventured. “I don’t know if we sometimes see the sky the same color, politically speaking, probably rarely. But you know that’s part of what we need in this Congress is a level of civility and respect for one another’s opinions. He’s shown that to me and I hope I’ve shown that to him.”

Grijalva will take over the chairmanship in January 2019.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Arizona PBS/Cronkite News’ Alexis Egeland and Imani Stevens contributed reporting to this piece.

More endangered California condors soon will soar above Pinnacles National Park

SOLEDAD, Calif. – There is a calming resonance of nature’s finest and subtlest sounds at Pinnacles National Park. Leaves rustle and birds warble as the wind flows between the rolling mountains.

On a good day, park visitors might see endangered California condors circling overhead, riding thermals on wingspans stretching up to 10 feet. The park manages 44 condors in the wild and serves as a release site for introduction into the wild.

Rachel Wolstenholme, condor program manager at Pinnacles, is pleased with how well these giants of the sky have rebounded, and she foresees their removal from the endangered-species list in the next 10 years.

In 1987, condors were on the brink of extinction. All 22 birds remaining in the wild were taken into captive breeding through collaborative programs with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ventana Wildlife Society and the Peregrine Fund.

Three decades later, the California condor is slowly rebounding. Earlier this fall, four were released at Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, where about 85 condors live in rugged terrain along the Arizona-Utah line.

“In fact, this year is really exciting, because this year we had a record number of nests,” said Nadya Seal Faith, conservation and science associate at the Santa Barbara Zoo, which runs a condor recovery program. “In Southern California, there was 12. That’s the most of any that we know historically.”

Video courtesy of L. Gonzales/USFWS

Seal Faith works closely with condors in captivity, observing their behavior and social interactions.

“It’s not only a fascinating species but a fascinating program to work with,” Seal Faith said. The zoo started to exhibit the condors in 2009.

She says there are now about 500 condors in the world, 300 of which are in the wild.

But the scavengers, which survive off the remains of animals killed by hunters, still battle their leading cause of death: lead poisoning.

“The only issue is that lead ammunition fragments into many, many, many tiny pieces inside a carcass,” Wolstenholme said.

She doesn’t want to discourage hunting but seeks to inform hunters of alternatives to lead ammunition.

“There’s copper bismuth, rifle ammunition,” Wolstenholme said. “There’s also steel shot, if people are using lead shot right now, like in a shotgun, there’s steel shot.”

Still, Wolstenholme is confident California condors will be taken off the endangered-species list in the near future.

“I like to say less than a decade. I actually know we can get there sooner. It’s all about making sure that they have a clean food resource,” she said.

In December, Pinnacles National Park will release three California condors into the wild.

“We’ll open the trap door for them, so they can leave when they’re ready,” Wolstenholme said.

Joint efforts and successful releases keep her and Seal Faith motivated.

“It’s just been so collaborative, and it’s been so great to see so many people, you know, wanting this bird to succeed,” Seal Faith said. “And I think that’s just been really special to be a part of.”

– Video by Emily Fohr

Drought, heat and urbanization put the squeeze on lemons in Arizona and California

PHOENIX – Citrus production, one of Arizona’s founding “Five Cs,” predates statehood. But today, the industry is stuck – and for lemons, the market no longer can grow, thanks to drought and urbanization.

Harold Payne is manager of the 2,000-acre Fort McDowell Tribal Farm, which grows lemon trees on just one-tenth of that land, even though prices have been steadily rising.

“So lemons, they are actually the most profitable because a lemon tree will produce three times as much fruit as a navel (orange) tree,” Payne said. “And the prices are higher. So it doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out, if you have a choice, you’d be growing lemons.”

In addition, people are using more lemons in cooking, seasonings, flavorings and beverages. Worldwide demand for lemons is at an all-time high, but growers in Arizona are not producing more lemons to meet the rising demand.

“The problem is there is no more water,” Payne said. “All of the water is allocated, that is, in the rivers in Arizona. It’s actually overallocated.”

Harold Payne of Fort McDowell Tribal Farm shows an irrigation line underneath a lemon tree. He would like to grow more lemons, but “The problem is there is no more water.” (Photo by Heather van Blokland/KJZZ)

Cities and tribes have the highest priority in water rights. Farmers are last in line, which means a smaller lemon crop on limited land with limited water. Add drought, high heat and natural disasters and prices fluctuate even more, said Harold Edwards, CEO of Limoneira, one of the oldest and largest citrus growers in the U.S.

“And so that’s why you saw the price of lemons rise to very, very high prices toward the end of the summer,” he said, “because of the early season and the early harvest of lemons. Combined with the extreme heat in the latter part of the summer, there just wasn’t enough supply to meet the demand.”

Edwards’ groves in Southern California were damaged this year by high temperatures.

“And the lemons on the tree really had a hard time with that, and the trees had a hard time with that,” he said. “And so you had a lot of fruit that was not able to make it through that heat event and fell onto the ground.”

In early June, the average price of a lemon box was $36. By July, it was $55. By mid-September, $70.

Edwards said consumers “tend to be somewhat inelastic from the standpoint of, if you go to the grocery store and that lemon costs 30 cents or you go that same grocery store and it costs 90 cents, consumers typically buy lemons and don’t typically let that price differential influence their decision.”

There is no alternative for lemons when making things like lemonade or lemon meringue pie. Which prompts some people to take matters into their own hands, said Pamela Hamilton, publisher and editor of Edible Phoenix magazine.

“There are actually some people who go and see a tree that isn’t being used and go knock on a door and ask if it can be foraged,” she said, but other people don’t bother to ask for permission.

“I say (that) as someone whose lemon tree was stripped of lemons while she was on vacation last year,” said Hamilton, who bemoans the decline of agriculture in metro Phoenix.

“In the time that I’ve been here, the amount of farmland that’s been paved over and turned into housing developments is astonishing,” she said. “Any farm that’s still a farm, I’m happy to see that continuing.”

Harold Payne among Ft. McDowell Farm’s rows of lemon crops. (Photo by Heather van Blokland/KJZZ)

Urban encroachment is another reason the Arizona citrus industry is in decline.

“Because of urbanization, primarily in the Phoenix area, and a number of years of poor returns, the industry has shrunk to about 12,000 acres,” said Glenn Wright, a University of Arizona Extension horticulturist.

“At one point in the ’70s, the Arizona citrus industry – which wasn’t just lemons, it included oranges – was about 80 thousand acres. Quite a lot of it, maybe 40 percent or so in the Phoenix area, and another 60 percent in the Yuma area.”

Arizona lemons now grow on only 15 percent of the acreage they covered in the 1970s. Arizona’s lemon harvest for 2018 is expected to be its lowest in almost a decade, with production declining to less than half of what it was in 2011.

Utilities scramble to replace power poles, water pipes in wake of California wildfires

MALIBU, Calif. – The recent California wildfires have destroyed far more than homes. Wooden power poles, PVC water pipes and water mains all are taking a beating. So utility workers now are scouring scorched terrain across the state to return everything to working order, which takes a great deal of effort and resources.

Southern California Edison is one of the biggest utilities in the U.S., providing service to 15 million people in central and Southern California.

Edison’s fire management officer, Troy Whitman, said the utility has more than 500 workers dedicated to recovery in the Malibu area, and the number is only growing: “It really takes a small army to support the operation.”

When a wildfire hits, Edison handles it in three phases:

Emergency response, when workers clear out any hazards so evacuees and officials can get where they need to go quickly.
Damage assessment, which means driving (and in some cases, helicoptering) around to see what’s broken.
Restoration, which is the process of replacing everything that was damaged.

Because the fires are still burning, utilities haven’t finished finding what needs fixing. But so far, Edison needs to replace roughly a thousand power poles in Malibu alone, and most of the high-voltage wires they carry.

But it turns out not all poles are created equal.

“Each one of these pole locations has to be engineered for the pole height and the pole strength,” Whitman said. “All of the equipment and hardware on each pole is specific to that location, so packages are created for each one of those locations.”

Fixing the poles along the Pacific Coast Highway and the major canyons is as easy as driving up to where they fell. But in some of Malibu’s smaller, more winding roads, it means digging into the ground by hand, then using a helicopter to set the pole in place.

Whitman said Edison has been using wire with new insulation, which will be less likely to spark when a pole falls down or when debris hits the wire. That could mean fewer fires.

“You can touch it with your hand and you’re insulated from the electricity flowing through the wire,” he said.

Southern California Edison says it has more than 500 workers dedicated to recovery in the Malibu area, and more will be needed. (Photo by Caleigh Wells/LAist)


Using all that water for fighting wildfires stresses local water systems, too. In the water district north of Malibu, about two-thirds of its service area burned, which overwhelmed the district’s resource, said Dave Pederson, general manager of Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.

“Public water systems are not designed to fight wildfires, they’re designed primarily for a structure fire, and to meet people’s domestic and home needs,” he said. “The system does its best to accommodate the firefighting efforts put on the system, but it can only do so much.”

It resulted in warnings to some residents to boil water because bacteria may have leached into the system.

But that wasn’t just because of the high demand from firefighters as they diverted water to their hoses. The fire also melted PVC pipes and broke water mains, and when the power went out, it shut down the pumps that move the water.

“Normally when there’s a leak in a water system … the only thing that happens is the water leaks out so the system is really safe from contamination,” Pedersen said.

But with the drop in pressure from so many demands, contaminates could leak in wherever the pipes were broken. Hence the notice to boil water (which was lifted Friday, Nov. 16).


Whitman said that, 25 years into his job, he sees the fires getting worse, so it’s a good time for safer power lines.

“The last few years, everyone has seen the increase in fire activity, the rate of spread of these fires, the devastation. I see in my job that things are changing.”

As for an end date, Whitman said the extent of the damage still hasn’t been determined because crews still aren’t able to get to some parts of Malibu.

“But we’re working feverishly to replace the poles we do know about.”

The 1922 agreement that governs the Colorado River is flawed. Why not fix it?

GREELEY, Colo. – Colorado River water managers have plenty to argue about, including how they should deal with lower water levels caused in part by higher temperatures, long-term drought and increasing population.

But there’s one thing on which nearly everyone who relies on the river can agree. The foundational document that divvies up the water – the Colorado River Compact, first signed nearly 100 years ago – is not easily altered. And the word renegotiation is bound to cause political ripples.

The late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., learned that lesson the hard way.

In summer 2008, McCain was the Republican nominee facing President Barack Obama. Colorado was considered a swing state.

Water scarcity issues are always top of mind for Western politicians. That’s why when reporter Charles Ashby, then with the Pueblo Chieftain, now with the Grand Junction Sentinel, got McCain on the phone and asked him why Colorado voters should trust an Arizonan when it comes to water.

“I thought that was relevant because he’s downstream on the Colorado River,” Ashby said, “and Arizona and Nevada and California are big water users.”

Because of population growth and dwindling water supplies, McCain said he’d be in favor of renegotiating the document that divvies up the river among the seven U.S. states that rely on it. Ashby was floored.

“I knew immediately that was a no-no, at least for politics here in the state of Colorado,” Ashby recalled. “And so I said to him, ‘Are you sure you want to say that? Because that won’t go over well up here.’”

Their phone connection kept cutting out, but McCain called back twice to double down on his idea. Sensing a big scoop, Ashby called a few other Colorado politicians to get their reactions. Prominent Democrats and Republicans agreed that McCain was out of line. Colorado’s sitting Democratic senator at the time, Ken Salazar, went so far as to say the Colorado River Compact would be renegotiated over his dead body.

“Then-Governor Bill Ritter said to me after that story ran, he said, ‘Charles, that story may have delivered the state to Obama,’” Ashby said.

McCain eventually walked his comments back after a thorough lashing in the press.

But with one sentence, he had touched a nerve in Western water politics.

“A lot of it is just the word choice: renegotiation,” said Doug Kenney, a water policy expert at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Some of Kenney’s work is funded by the Walton Family Foundation, which also funds KUNC’s Colorado River coverage.

Renogotiation is a word that inflames decades-old tensions in the vast watershed, Kenney said – Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah in the Upper Basin, and Arizona, California and Nevada in the Lower Basin.

“I think a lot of the parties think it’s scary simply because it’s a little scary to negotiate when not all the parties have the same political power,” Kenney said.

That power imbalance is what brought regional political leaders to the table in 1922, when the Colorado River Compact was signed. The desert Southwest was beginning to grow rapidly, and rather than acquiesce all of the river’s flow to the sprawling cities and cropland of Southern California, water managers felt it was in their best interest to come to an agreement to divvy up the river among themselves. The alternative was conflict and litigation.

Each basin was to receive 7.5 million acre-feet of water per year, which the basins allocated among themselves. The Upper Basin opted for percentages, with Colorado receiving the largest share. The Lower Basin chose to parse it into discrete, fixed portions, with California and Arizona receiving the largest amounts.

Conventional wisdom about the math underlying the compact goes something like this:

Water managers used the available data to figure out how much water they had to work with; however, the time period they examined had been uncharacteristically wet. Soon after the compact’s signing, the river returned to its more normal flows, and right from the start, the compact didn’t mesh with reality. More water existed on paper than in the river, creating a gap between supplies and demands that continues to today. So the story goes: It was no one’s fault, just a historical fluke.

John Fleck, director of the University of New Mexico’s water resources program, says that conventional wisdom is wrong. Allocating more water than was available was the politically expedient thing to do. He’s finishing a book with Colorado River expert Eric Kuhn on what water managers of the 1920s knew about the river’s flow and when they knew it. They found that scientists with the highly respected U.S. Geological Survey were complaining about the inflated numbers even before the compact was signed.

“They all concluded the same thing, ‘You’re basing this on an unusually wet period. You need to take into account dry periods. There is really less water than you think,’” Fleck said. “And all those scientific experts were ignored.”

Today, there’s broad consensus about the compact’s math problems. Although it was scoffed at a decade ago, McCain’s proposal to renegotiate has support among some environmentalists, including Jen Pelz, wild rivers program director with WildEarth Guardians. She says the only way to fix the river’s fundamental supply-demand problem is to go back to the beginning.

“It’s just like curing illness, right? You have to get at the source,” she said.

Old agreements among states to manage water in the West don’t reflect modern realities, like climate change or broader environmental concerns, Pelz said. Compacts for the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers allocate every drop for human use. There’s value in leaving water in rivers for recreation and ecosystem health, she says.

“I think that is a huge problem, and I think that we don’t want to have that conversation because it’s hard,” Pelz said.

The river’s foundational problems are front of mind these days as Colorado River water managers are attempting to finalize new agreements called Drought Contingency Plans, designed to boost declining reservoirs and cut back on water use throughout the watershed. Pelz says the plans don’t go far enough.

“It’s all like shuffling chairs on the Titanic,” she said. “The ship is sinking still. And if you shuffle all those chairs around and you make it look pretty, it’s still not going to make any difference.”

Reopening the Colorado River Compact would require the support of people like Pat Tyrrell, the Wyoming state engineer. And he is not interested.

“No, I would never advocate going back to the compact,” he said.

There’s a work around, he says. Rather than renegotiate the original document, water managers like him come up with new agreements that build on it and address some of the compact’s bad math. But throwing the whole thing out would be a mistake.

“If it were to go away, there would be a free for all,” Tyrrell said. “There is no magic second compact sitting in the wings behind it, and the battle between Arizona, California and Nevada against us four Upper Basin states would be brought anew.”

Although water managers today have no appetite for changes to the compact, it’s uncertain the compact’s framers meant for it to be immutable. When Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover was selling the deal to Congress, he hedged the agreement’s finality. In 1926, Hoover told members of a House committee that if the deal could “provide for equity for the next 40 to 75 years, we can trust to the generation after the next to be as intelligent as we are today.” And that those future water leaders “will settle it in the light of the forces of their day.”

In his Ph.D. dissertation at University of Colorado, Jon Berggren, now a water policy analyst at Western Resource Advocates, summarized Hoover’s testimony as suggesting that, “at least from Hoover’s perspective, the negotiators of the compact did not intend to make the original allocations of the compact static.”

Hoover gave the original agreement a shelf life of 75 years.

“He underestimated us a little bit, didn’t he? We’re still here making it work,” Tyrrell said. “We have shown in the Colorado River Basin the ability to adapt, even in areas where the compact may may feel constraining.”

The word “adapt” seems to go over a lot better with Colorado River water managers than the dreaded “renegotiation.”

This story is part of a project covering the Colorado River, produced by KUNC and supported through a Walton Family Foundation grant. KUNC is solely responsible for its editorial content.

Hunters help safeguard Arizona’s deer and elk from chronic wasting disease

GREER – On a chilly fall morning in eastern Arizona, families taking part in a youth hunting camp awoke before dawn to hunt elk.

Gage Martinez, 14, was one of the last to shoot an elk, but by midmorning, it was skinned and hanging from a tree by its hind legs.

“I was so excited, my hand was shaking,” Martinez said.

Meanwhile, three Arizona Game & Fish Department biologists gathered around the elk’s head. One of them used a small knife to cut into the animal’s cheek to remove the lymph nodes, which will be sent to a lab in Colorado to be tested for chronic wasting disease, or CWD.

CWD is a neurodegenerative disease found in deer, elk and moose populations. It’s prevalent in Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, which neighbor Arizona. Infected animals become unresponsive, emaciated and eventually die.

So far, regular testing and strict laws have kept Arizona CWD free. But that could change quickly.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with Arizona Game & Fish. “It may be an impossible challenge, because states that we didn’t think were going to get it now have it.”

Anne Justice-Allen, a wildlife veterinarian with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, pulls out the lymph nodes from an elk’s cheek. The nodes will be sent to Colorado for chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Last year, CWD was found in Montana. The year before, it was discovered in Arkansas. The disease now has been detected in 24 states, where it has reduced herds by 20 to 40 percent.

“We need to make sure that wildlife populations are healthy because they really play an important role in keeping the landscape and the environment sustained,” Justice-Allen said.

Researchers are trying to learn more about the disease and to find a vaccine, but right now there is no cure.

“In Colorado and other states, we don’t know how to eradicate it,” said Travis Duncan, a spokesman with Colorado’s Park and Wildlife Department. “All we can do is manage it.”

Hunting season is key

Hunters are on the front line of Arizona’s efforts to keep the disease at bay.

There is no way to determine whether a deer or elk has CWD until the late stages of the disease, when physical symptoms appear.

“You may have seen signage or posters with sick-looking deer that lead us to believe anyone can visually identify it,” Duncan said. “But in reality, most deer with CWD look perfectly healthy and you would never be able to tell.”

David Drever, a biologist intern with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, writes information about the elk and where it was killed on a slip paper to be included with the lymph node sample. The department hires extra interns in the fall to help with chronic wasting disease testing. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

There is no blood test for CWD, so the animal must be dead to collect and test a lymph-node sample.

“That’s part of the reason why managing it through hunting and testing the deer that people harvest is the best option we have,” Duncan said.

Hunting season is the only time of the year when Arizona Game & Fish can regularly test for CWD. The goal is to test as many animals as possible during this time.

Last year, the department tested more than 1,200 samples statewide, and officials hope to test even more this year.

“Our goal is to test enough animals on an annual basis to try and make sure we can detect it if it’s present in even just 1 percent of the population,” Justice-Allen said.

Arizona Game & Fish opened a new testing center in Springerville to help with this goal, and Justice-Allen and her team are going to more hunting camps this season to collect samples and spread awareness.

“We’re talking to hunters and letting them know what we’re doing out here and why it’s important that we’re doing the disease-monitoring project and taking samples,” said David Drever, a biologist intern with Game & Fish.

Not all hunters, however, process the meat themselves or take the time to voluntarily provide their animal for testing, so the department pays professional taxidermists and meat processors to fill in the gaps. Justice-Allen said about half of the samples Game & Fish tests are collected from these sources.

Rusty Rogers, a hunter and a committe member of the White Mountain Chapter of the Rocky Mountian Elk Foundation, worries about the possibility of CWD coming to the state. He said all it would take is one case of CWD to devastate deer herds. (Photo by Stephanie Morse/Cronkite News)

Arizona quick to act

Beyond testing, Arizona has strict laws related to captive deer management and how deer meat is handled. Experts say these measures are another key part of the state’s success at keeping CWD out of the state.

Arizona has banned traditional deer farms where private owners raise deer to hunt or sell byproducts because of concerns about the potential role these farms could have in spreading CWD.

But zoos and animal sanctuaries, such as Grand Canyon Deer Farm near Williams, are allowed to keep captive deer.

Amy Kravitz, a biologist at the deer farm, said the farm submits deer for disease testing anytime one dies. The farm also needs special permission from Game & Fish to import deer, she said, and can only bring in animals from CWD-free states.

The state also bans people from bringing whole deer carcasses or central nervous tissue – the brain and spinal cord, which contain the highest concentrations of the protein that causes CWD – into Arizona.

In addition, Arizona is one of only a few states to ban hunters from using deer urine or grain feed as bait to attract game, due to concerns these methods can cause the disease to spread more quickly.

“Some of these things occur in other areas of the country,” Justice-Allen said. “Here we’re cautious and just don’t allow it.”

An uphill battle

Despite such efforts, chronic wasting disease has continued to spread since it was first detected in wild deer populations in Colorado in 1981.

“It’s something that we’re always thinking about and concerned about,” Justice-Allen said.

This is part of the reason why Arizona Game & Fish has redoubled its efforts in recent years to collect more samples. The disease, however, often is spread by natural deer movement, which can’t be controlled. Wild deer can travel 50 to 100 miles, so it’s possible CWD infected deer from a neighboring state can cross into Arizona.

“In some states like Montana, where it was just detected last year,” Justice-Allen said, “it’s probably been there for a year or two before they found it.”

If the disease comes to Arizona, state workers and hunters hope it will be discovered in a few months instead of a few years.

“We try very hard to manage our herds to keep them at a maximum level, and all it would take is one serious case of CWD to just throw everything out of balance,” said Rusty Rogers, an avid hunter and committee member for the White Mountain chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

The quicker Game & Fish can respond, the greater the likelihood it could limit the spread of the disease.

The department would have to remove the infected deer and any other deer that could have come in contact with the infected animal and its waste.

In other states after CWD was detected, officials released bonus tags to hunters for trying to keep the deer population down, and instituted mandatory CWD testing.

A long road ahead

The Arizona Game & Fish Department spends about $70,000 on CWD testing each year, which is around 27 percent of its wildlife-health budget.

The department hires extra interns in the fall to help operate the Springerville testing station and another one in Kaibab, pick up samples from taxidermists and meat processors, and monitor hunting camps.

“It’s a lot easier for us to keep diseases out than it is to try and control them once they’re here,” Justice-Allen said.

Knowing their game is safe to eat also provides hunters with peace of mind.

“To be clear, it has never been found to cross the species barrier from deer or elk to humans,” Drever said, “but it is still a concern that people have had in their minds of ‘Do I want to eat an animal that has a disease?’”

Despite Arizona’s success so far, experts don’t expect the threat to ease anytime soon.

“This is something that we have to manage over the course of the next 10 to 15 years and maybe even beyond, who knows,” Duncan said. “It’s going to be a decades-long fight, not just year-to-year.”

-Video by Jordan Dafnis