Monday, July 16, 2012

East vs West

From time to time, I write a bit about differences in outlooks and/or attitudes by people who live on the eastern side of the Great Plains versus those who live on the western side.  For those who don't know, I live on the west side, in one of Denver's suburbs.  I spent the past few days in far southeastern Kansas on the east side of the Plains to attend a family wedding.  One of the big factors shaping attitudes on opposite sides of the Plains is amount of precipitation and the resulting consequences.  Denver averages 15.8 inches per year; the town where the wedding was held averages 42.1 inches per year [1].

During the wedding reception, after it got dark, people sent up sky lanterns (representative illustration to the left).  These are a paper/fabric bag about four feet tall with a very simple framework at the bottom that holds a waxy block of fuel and keeps the bag open.  When the internal temperature of the bag is high enough, the whole thing is released and flies away like the small hot-air balloon that it is.  Fifteen or 20 in the air at once is an impressive sight (the world's record, set in Poland, is 15,000).  On the light breeze that was blowing in Kansas, the lanterns could travel a considerable distance.  Many became very small, very dim dots in the sky before they disappeared from view completely.  Some were clearly going to crash much sooner than that, quite possibly before the fuel burned out.

None of the SE Kansas locals seemed bothered by the release.  On the other hand, there was a small contingent of the bride's relatives who had lived in Colorado for many years, who were absolutely aghast.  To paraphrase what one of them asked the person in charge of the lanterns, "You're going to light something on fire and let it fly away?  With no idea where it will come down?  Are you insane?"  2012 has been a bad year for fires in Colorado.  At least in my mind, though, the lanterns would have drawn the same reaction from most Coloradans in July of any year.  And would have drawn the same reaction from the residents of large parts of the West.

With good reason.  When you consider the 11 states that lie west of the Great Plains (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), wildfires are a part of life.  Various kinds of fire: while Colorado's forest fires made national and world-wide news this year, an 84-square-mile grass fire that killed at least one person and destroyed multiple homes was relegated to local coverage alone.  And Colorado is at the bottom of the list of western states when fire size is considered: over the past century, the other ten states have all had fires much larger than Colorado's largest.

Wildfires and debates about wildfire policy are front-page stuff in the West, particularly during fire season.  How should liability be assigned, and how much liability?  In the case of fires started by human activities, it is not uncommon to read about the delivery of the fire-fighting bill -- often running to millions of dollars -- to the individuals responsible for starting the fire.  How much of the budget should be spent on fire fighting versus mitigating fire danger in state and national forests?  How much should private landowners be required to spend on mitigation?  Should people who build houses in wildfire-prone forests be required to pay fees to cover the costs of eventually defending those homes against fire?

There are places east of the Great Plains where wildfires occur.  But the East in general lacks the broad fire consciousness that pervades so much of the West.

[1] Precipitation figures from

No comments:

Post a Comment