Best of the West: Wildfires threaten the region; creative industries face dire straits; rare whale sighting in Alaska

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Aug. 17, 2020. Photo courtesy of the Arvada Fire Protection District.

Numerous wildfires are burning across the western United States, threatening structures and prompting widespread evacuation orders.

In California, NBC Los Angeles reports 23 major active fires, in addition to more than 300 smaller fires in rural and desert areas. Most notably, the LNU Complex Fire in the North Bay Area – comprised of at least eight smaller, lightning-sparked fires – had burned 124,000 acres and destroyed at least 105 structures as of Aug. 19.

Other large-scale incidents include the SCU Complex Fire – consisting of approximately 20 fires across five Bay Area counties – and the Lake Fire in Los Angeles County, which have burned 102,000 acres and 26,213 acres respectively as of the morning of Aug. 20.

“We are deploying every resource available to keep communities safe as California battles fires across the state during these extreme conditions,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom, who declared a statewide emergency. “California and its federal and local partners are working in lockstep to meet the challenge and remain vigilant in the face of continued dangerous weather conditions.”

Colorado also is facing multiple wildfires, including the 121,781-acre Pine Gulch Fire, now the second largest wildfire in state history, according to Colorado Public Radio. The Grizzly Creek Fire in Glenwood Canyon, which has grown to 29,732 acres and was at 4% containment on Aug. 20, has been described by fire officials as the "number one firefighting priority in the United States" because it has closed Interstate 70 since Aug. 10, with no estimated time for reopening.

Those blazes, coupled with smaller incidents around the state, led Gov. Jared Polis to sign an executive order implementing temporary fire restrictions, including a ban on outdoor fires, fireworks, and explosives.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has declared a state of emergency in response to fires burning in central and eastern Washington, as well as the Olympic Peninsula, KXLY reports.

In Oregon, evacuations are in place after two new fires erupted midweek, according to The Statesman Journal. The state’s largest active wildfires, burning in the east, are the 2,270-acre Crane Fire, near Lakeview, and the Indian Creek Fire, which has scorched 9,000 acres of remote grassland.

Other active incidents in the region include the Salt Fire, threatening nearly 3,000 acres of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, the Waddle Creek Fire, burning just under 30,000 acres at the Montana-Wyoming border, and several smaller fires in Idaho’s Payette National Forest.

Creative Industries: With live performances largely off the table for the foreseeable future, creative industries across the region have been struggling to survive. A new report shows that between April 1 and July 31, Colorado’s music industry lost an estimated 8,327 jobs, a 51% decrease, Denverite reports. In Montana, where a similar trend has emerged, Gov. Steve Bullock announced a new, $10 million Live Entertainment Grant Program, meant to prop up the industry in the wake of canceled tours and shuttered venues. "Without additional support for our live entertainment venues we risk losing those cultural assets, permanently," Gov. Bullock said. Learn more about new program.

Remote Work: In an effort to keep COVID-19 at bay, officials in Washington’s King, Pierce and Snohomish counties have implemented a mandatory teleworking policy through Jan. 8, 2021. According to Governing Magazine, the policy applies to more than 12,000 employees, with exemptions for situations “where there is an operational need to physically return to the workplace.” In addition to health concerns, local officials cited the need for predictability as a motivator for the new policy. “We know that those with school-aged kids have been juggling an enormous workload these past six months,” said Dave Somers, Snohomish County executive. “Giving them some predictability should help with planning, while also allowing us to keep county government delivering services to the public.” Read more.

Whale Watching: Passengers of an 80-foot charter boat cruising the waters of southeast Alaska were treated to what the Anchorage Daily News describes as a “less-than-once-in-a-lifetime” event: the spotting of a white orca whale. “There have only been about eight white killer whales ever recorded in the world,” said University of Alaska Fairbanks graduate student Stephanie Hayes. “To have one in southeast was an incredible phenomenon.” Dennis Rogers, the boat’s captain, noted that it was the first white orca he’s spotted in 45-plus years on the ocean. Find out what researchers have learned about this unique specimen, including what causes its rare pigmentation.

Growth Amidst a Pandemic: Although unemployment has spiked in many parts of the country, two small municipalities in the West have managed to weather the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic: Logan, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho. In Logan, where the unemployment rate sits at a nationwide-low of 3.5%, local officials offer incentives for businesses to fix up their storefronts, widen sidewalks, and create more opportunities for outdoor dining, according to Governing Magazine. Logan is also leveraging Utah State University, its largest employer, to launch a number of life science-related businesses, including testing and diagnostic services. Idaho Falls, with an unemployment rate of just 3.6%, is a close second to Logan with regard to economic activity. Home to the Idaho National Laboratory, the nation’s leading nuclear research center, Idaho Falls also boasts several food processors and proximity to several outdoor attractions. Here’s what else has enabled these cities to thrive.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated weekly)

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