Mountain News: 42 per cent of Vail homes face fire risk 

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VAIL, Colo. — Some 42 per cent of homes in Vail are at "high risk" for damage from wildfires, according to new interactive maps created by Vail's fire department.

To anybody who has been in Vail, this may seem intuitive. Like most ski towns, it's crowded by forests. And wood does burn, if not very often in high mountain ecosystems.

Fire intervals for the lodgepole pine forests that surround Vail are at least 120 years. Higher up, toward timberline, Engelmann and spruce forests can go 400 years between fires. In comparison, white settlers didn't arrive to stake out homesteads at Vail until about 130 years ago.

For 20 years, the pace of fires has been quickening across Colorado. Most destructive have been those of the last two summers along Colorado's Front Range, which have destroyed hundreds of homes and killed several people. Along with the still-dying lodgepole pine forest, the victims of bark beetles, the fires have created a new awareness of the vulnerability.

What has Vail done about it? Lots. About a decade ago, the town began banning new flammable shake-shingle roofs. It provided incentives to homeowners along the forest edge to remove trees. In a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, it cleared large swatches of land on the town's periphery, effectively creating a moat. The goal is to preclude crown fires, in which fire spreads from tree to tree at their tops. They're considered more dangerous than ground fires.

The Vail Daily reports town officials also talked about requiring all existing shake-shingle roofs be removed, although the costs would be prohibitive.

Dave Neely, the local Forest Service ranger, credits Vail with doing much recently. "You can never fully eliminate fire danger," he said. "But we're much better off than we were even five years ago."

Woman who fell to death had a remarkable story

OURAY, Colo. — During November, 23-year-old Zina Lahr went hiking among steep cliffs on the outskirts of Ouray, the town where she was reared. She fell to her death, ending an already remarkable life.

A profile in The Telluride Watch describes the tributes on her Facebook page. Friends described her as "an angel, modern-day prophetess, prayer warrior, forest nymph and, most of all, a beautiful soul."

She was, according to this account, so precocious that she was mentored by a particle physicist from Los Alamos, N.M., who pointed her in the direction of robotics. She cultivated a fascination for robotics, special effects and both traditional and stop-motion animation.

The Watch describes her as a "willowy young woman with striking, animated features and tousled long, brown hair... In a land of fleece and flannel, Lahr cut an exotic figure on the streets of Ouray, in her Steampunk fashion, with WWII Russian aviator flight goggles forever perched atop her head."

She wanted to be a storyteller, and she showcased that skill, as well as her animations and 3D art, on her website, normallyodd.com.

Nearly two years ago, she wrote this: "Time is not going to control my life expectancies... but my choices will determine the result of my time here in this world.

"Perhaps, we should use our time in embracing how we truly are, without the expectations of who we should be through time. I am Zina... and I build robots, wear goggles, dress in costumes, play with toys, drink root beer at bars..."

Skier death raises thorny issues

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — In 2011, a skier slid through a six-metre opening between a wooden fence and a shed at the top of the Howelsen Hill, the ski area operated by Steamboat Springs.

The area below had been a ski run, and it was still identified that way on trail maps. But it wasn't maintained, and in fact, after installing an alpine slide 20 years ago, ski area managers considered it closed. They just hadn't bothered to tell the public.

The victim of this failure was Cooper Larsh, 19, who skied over a retaining wall for the alpine slide, ejected from his skis and fell headfirst into the snow and suffocated.

The ski patrol told police that Larsh had sidestepped uphill and intentionally entered a restricted area by skiing "around ropes and signage identifying the area to be closed." The Steamboat police accepted that report. The mother of the young man did not accept the story and filed a lawsuit.

A district court judge believes the mother, not the ski area. She found no evidence of signs, nor evidence that the six-metre gap had been closed. Plus, two other skiers had entered through the gap that same day, and at least one of them believed it was an open run.

The Denver Post has been dogging the case, questioning whether police and sheriffs should accept the testimony of ski patrollers, who are ski area employees.

In this case, Steamboat Springs claims governmental immunity while admitting to a "design failure." If that argument of immunity doesn't stand up, the case would proceed on the Colorado law that governs liability for privately owned ski areas. The case will be heard by an appeals court Jan. 22.

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