Best of the West: Battle against wildfires continues in the region; New Mexico adopts modern workforce training; Alaskan researchers transform kelp into fuel  

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Aug. 9, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Kate Schoenbach, Mathew Brown, and David Csepp) 

Wildfires continue to cause significant problems throughout the West, especially in CaliforniaThe Dixie Fire, the largest fire in the U.S. and now the second largest in the state’s history, has burned more than 1,000 buildings and a half-million acres since July 14. After weeks of unchecked growth, however, the blaze is now 30% contained with nearly its entire southern portion now secured behind fire lines. Elsewhere in the region, milder temperatures and monsoonal rains in recent weeks have helped firefighters gain better control of several major fires, including:

  • The Bootleg Fire, which has burned 413,000 acres in Oregon since July 16, is now 98% contained, allowing Klamath and Lake Counties to lift evacuation orders. 
  • The Snake River Complex Fire in Idaho, which scorched roughly 110,000 acres when three smaller fires merged, is 96% contained.
  • The Lick Creek Dry Gulch Fire, which burned about 80,000 acres along the Washington-Oregon Border is also 90% contained.
  • The Tamarack Fire, which burned about 69,000 acres along the Nevada-California border, is now 80% contained. (Click the links for each fire to get the latest incident reports.)   

Despite the recent gains, as warmer temperatures return to the West fire officials are pleading with residents to remain fire aware. For example, primed by hot temperatures and winds up to 56 mph, the Richard Spring Fire in Montana has quickly grown since Aug. 8 to 150,000 acres, prompting the evacuation of the town of Lame Deer and cutting power to the area.

NEW COLLAR JOBS: The Santa Fe Higher Education Center in New Mexico has partnered with the New Collar Network to offer digital badges for job skills in the modern economy. Fab Lab Hub LLC, a digital contract manufacturing company associated with the Network, will also provide earn-as-you-learn jobs for badge earners. “Blue-collar jobs are now digital,” wrote Sarah Boisvert, a co-founder of the New Collar Network. “Previously the purview of manufacturing, robots are now cleaning big retail stores, assisting in surgeries and moving heavy boxes in warehouses... and we need humans to program, monitor, and fix them when broken.”

SHAKE, RATTLE, AND ROLL: More than 1,000 earthquakes rattled Yellowstone National Park in July. But don’t worry, it’s not the infamous Yellowstone super volcano awakening. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, it’s due in large part to seven “earthquake swarms,” one of which caused more than 764 quakes from its center below Yellowstone Lake. “The month was quite a doozy for earthquakes, but it’s not actually the most we’ve seen,” Mike Poland, the scientist-in-charge at Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, explained in a video. The record was set in June of 2017, when more than 1,100 earthquakes shook the region as part of a swarm of more than 2,400 quakes that lasted three months.

FISHY FUEL: Many isolated communities in remote Alaska are not connected to pipelines or the electrical grid. As a result, most of the residents rely on diesel generators to power their lives. In response, researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a way to transform the abundant kelp and fish waste in the area into a carbon-neutral diesel fuel capable of powering generators and even fishing boats.

FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN: From her perch atop the highest point of Colorado's Rampart Range, Ashley Farinacci-Silfies can see east towards Kansas, west to the Continental Divide, north to Wyoming and south to Pike's Peak – an important position for the last fire lookout employed by the US Forest Service on the state's Front Range. Stationed at Devils Head Tower, one of a handful of fire towers in the US that still maintain seasonal operations, Farinacci-Silfies spends her days much like Helen Dowe, the state’s first female fire lookout in Colorado. Learn about her daily work and why she says "technology can't replace me."

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