Best of the West: Wildfires spark back to life in region; Bald Eagles soaring again; meet the first woman to finish a sanctioned marathon (at 14,115 feet in the Rockies!)

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting March 29, 2021. (Photo courtesy of CNN)

The western wildfire season has sparked to life even before the calendar has reached April. Three different wildfires burned this week near Rapid City, South Dakota. Even though fire officials expect to have the blazes contained soon, by mid-week they already had scorched nearly 3.3 square miles, forced the closure of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and CNN reported that Gov. Kristi Noem issued a state of emergency.

In North Dakota, extreme drought conditions prompted Gov. Doug Burgum on April 1 to place the state's National Guard on standby to help if needed to respond to a growing number of wildfires. And Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly issued a State of Disaster declaration on March 28 due to the high risk of fires owing to high winds.

Although there haven't been any wildfires reported in California yet, Gov. Gavin Newsom just announced the state is hiring nearly 1,400 additional firefighters. The Governor's decision, according to the Associated Press, was driven by "an unusually dry winter stoking fears of another devastating wildfire season." According to the AP, the state's "latest snow survey recorded a statewide 'snow water equivalent' of just 15 inches, or about 54% of average."

Meanwhile, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed legislation clearing the way for more prescribed fires in that state. The Associated Press reports the measure also “clarifies liability for private landowners who conduct prescribed burns and creates a certification program for conducting such burns safely.”  Prescribed burning, used by land managers to clear vegetation in a bid to reduce the threat of wildfires, was explored during an episode of WGA’s Out West podcast, Reintroducing Natural Fire in Western Landscapes. Listen.

In other news about wildfires:

  • The city of Austin, Texas, has begun implementing new building requirements to curb wildfires. City officials say putting the Wildland Urban Interface Code into practice makes Austin the largest major city in the state with such requirements.
  • The podcast series Fireline is examining wildfire through a series of lenses, including the historical perspective. The Big Burn episode revisits how a massive 1910 wildfire that burned in Montana, Idaho and Washington created a culture of fire suppression that still persists.
  • Researchers are studying whether aspen trees that sprout after being damaged in a wildfire were different than the tree burned. Here’s what they learned.

SOARING AGAIN: The Bald Eagle was nearly extinct, with fewer than 500 breeding pairs in the continental U.S. in the early '70s, after being hunted, poisoned and forced from their habitat for more than a century. Shortly after the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, bald eagles were granted the protections that, according to NPR, have enabled the population to "quadruple in the last dozen years to more than 316,000." The conservation success is even more impressive in light of a recent Cornell Lab of Ornithology study that found American bird populations have dropped by about one-third in the last 50 years.

TRIBAL NEWS:  The Great Falls Tribune, in recognition of the many issues impacting Indigenous people in Montana, recently launched Eight Nations, a weekly email newsletter on tribal news in the state. The newspaper promises readers that they can "expect to hear from Indigenous leaders, lawmakers, artists and community members on issues they care about most." Eight Nations is named for the Blackfeet, Little Shell, Chippewa Cree, Crow, Fort Peck (Assiniboine and Sioux), Northern Cheyenne, Confederated Salish and Kootenai and Fort Belknap (Assiniboine/Nakoda and Gros Ventre/Aaniiih) tribes in Montana. Sign up for the newsletter.

LONG DISTANCE LEGEND: Arlene Pieper Stine may have passed away, but organizers of the Pikes Peak Marathon in Colorado want to ensure her name survives for generations to come. That legacy, the Colorado Sun explains, was forged in 1959 when the “wife, mother, business owner, and runner who hiked and ran on Pikes Peak with her family ” ran the marathon in the simplest of running gear and “tennis shoes from Woolworths.” She conquered an incredibly demanding course – racers run more than 13 miles and gain 7,800 vertical feet to summit of the 14,115-foot mountain before returning. And in the process Pieper Stine also became the first woman to finish a sanctioned marathon, well before Kathrine Switzer in 1967 became the first woman to complete the Boston Marathon. Read her remarkable story.

STATE OF THE STATE: Western Governors have been delivering their annual State of the State address in recent months. Watch all addresses delivered to date and see a ‘word cloud’ of the top issues discussed by Jared Polis of Colorado, Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma, Mike Dunleavy of Alaska, Greg Gianforte of Montana, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Brad Little of Idaho, Doug Ducey of Arizona, Laura Kelly of Kansas, Kristi Noem of South Dakota, Steve Sisolak of Nevada, Kate Brown of Oregon, Spencer Cox of Utah, David Ige of Hawaii, Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico, Jay Inslee of Washington, Mark Gordon of Wyoming, Gavin Newsome of California, and Lemanu Mauga of American Samoa. Read, watch all addresses.

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