Western Inferno

The dire wildfire situation in the west, particularly in Colorado, has been national news for weeks.  Other states have reported scattered fires and now Utah has joined the long list of states that are dealing with fires.

This year, in particular, the conditions across the western US are ripe for burning; it’s a perfect storm: a dry, hot spring and early summer; poor snowpack this winter and an early melt due to the heat; underbrush, grasses, and dead trees that haven’t burned in years; constant 25 mph winds; temps in the high 90s, and no rain in 2 months are all contributing factors, especially in Utah.

Firefighting hot-shot teams are already stretched thin across the Rockies, as are helicopters and airplanes that drop water and retardants.  You can only use hoses so much, as there are no fire hydrants in the mountains and canyons.  If many more fires break out, we’ll be in trouble.

I vividly recall as I drove out here in summer of 2009 of being shocked at all the dead trees in the Colorado high country due mainly to the pine beetle that was chewing its way through the lush forests.  Literally, dead, gray pines trees stretched for miles, making for quite an ugly landscape.  I remember thinking that this was a tinderbox and all it would take was a bolt of lightning to ignite a forest fire.

Dead pine trees due to pine beetle.

Fast forward to 2012 and this is the situation you’re looking at on the news each evening.  It has been determined that the biggest blaze near Ft. Collins, Colorado was started by lightning, as, believe it or not, the tree that was hit has been located!  Unfortunately, that’s not the case with the Utah fires.

Here in Utah, 90% of earlier spring and current fires–and presently there are at least 6 major fires–are human-caused.  The Eagle Mountain Fire, aka the Dump Fire, was caused by gun enthusiasts who were target shooting in the dump.  Last weekend several thousand residents of nearby towns had to be evacuated.  Luckily, no homes were burned, but it was a gross inconvenience.  The Wood Hollow fire, southeast of me is still burning out of control and the Quail Fire in Sanpete Co, way south of me, has burned over 40,000 acres, destroyed 20-30 homes and a lot of livestock that was trapped behind the fireline, and is far from being contained.

With the conditions being so dry, one would think that people would be extra cautious, but nooooo, people are idiots.  The target shooters who started the Dump fire were not only firing at rocks with steel-tipped bullets to create a ricochet–very exciting–but were also firing at explosive targets, guaranteed to create impressive bomb effects.  No wonder these ding-dongs started a fire.  To their credit (if they can be praised for anything), they reported the fire and turned themselves in to authorities.  According to Utah law, they have to pay for the firefighting efforts.  Do they even have that much money??

And guess what holiday is around the corner?  Yep, 4th of July.  And naturally, in Utah,  all sorts of fireworks are legal, available (and not being banned this year).  In Syracuse–and we’re not unique in this–bone dry pastures and fields create a patchwork quilt with houses and lawns.  Picturesque when there’s rain, dangerous when we’re parched.  And then we all get treated to another round of fireworks later in the month when Pioneer Days roll around on the 24th.  I can’t imagine the number of July brush fires that will start due to private aerial fireworks displays.  Keep the garden hose handy; it’s going to be a long, hot, fiery season.

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Published in: on June 26, 2012 at 7:26 pm  Comments (1)  

Transgenic Spider Goat Cloned by USU Profs

Sounds like a headline from the National Enquirer tabloid, doesn’t it?  Remember some of those headlines?  Two-headed Alien Found Homeless in NYC’s Central Park or A Bowl of Oatmeal Each Day Prevents STDs.  Well, that goat headline appeared Friday in the Standard-Examiner and it has all the ingredients for an incredulous story: goats (you know their reputation, a symbol for Satan); spider DNA manipulation; a Russian veterinary diagnostician, Irina Polejaeva (who was on the team that first cloned a pig); and a “mad” scientist,  Randy Lewis.

Apparently up in Logan, 2 Utah State University professors have successfully cloned 2 sets of twin spider goats.  What is a spider goat you ask?  Spider goats look, act, and sound like a normal goat except they’ve been genetically modified with a spider gene that allows the females to produce milk that contains spider silk.  (Yeah, I know it’s sounding pretty weird.)  The strong silk protein is not in web form, but must be isolated and purified before use.  Note: for all you Spiderman wannabes, this product will NOT be available on the market anytime soon, so you can forget having spider silk threads shoot from your wrists.)

USU molecular biologist Randy Lewis has been working with enzymes for over 30 years hoping to produce an ultralight, super-strong fiber for use in protective garments and artificial tendons.  Cloning these animals speeds up the availability of the spider web milk, so it made sense to clone the best milk producer, Daisy, to get larger quantities of milk.  Four embryos from Daisy, a white goat, were implanted in 2 black goats resulting in 2 sets of true clones of her.  This is a first for Utah.

It is hoped that proving the ability to successfully increase the herd will be an enticement for investors (research takes money!).  Actually, if this works, the potential is great.  Perhaps fabric can be woven to make lighter-weight bullet-proof vests.  The possibility of use for artificial tendons and ligaments puts the team on an exciting path for advances in surgery, restoring motion and strengthening tissues.

I must admit, I remember the first discussions about cloning and how worried people generally were, with the thought of cloning humans.  I guess science didn’t exactly take that route, but cloning has marched on, combined with genetic modifications.  I know scientists have put phosphorescent genes (think: creatures that glow) into frogs–not sure how useful that is–but who would have thought to mix spiders and goats?  And who would have guessed that the spider web gene would manifest itself in the goat’s milk–of all places.  It could have appeared in the stomach or kidney….

As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest: “Oh, brave new world!”

Published in: on June 19, 2012 at 1:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

That Was the Week That Was, Chapter 2

You know what they say: “No good deed goes unpunished.”  I think it fits here.  The local family who funds the museum essay competition has high hopes that the prizes will be appreciated by the winners and that Syracuse history will remain alive.  Students are invited to compose essays on the given topic, submit them, and wait for a decision.  Our reading committee judiciously read blind copies of the essays and made their selections.  The prize money was generous: $100.00 and down from there in increments.  I had the honor of calling the winners to notify them.  As luck would have it, a second place and an honorable mention winner were sisters and lived under the same roof with the older brother who wrote such a disparaging essay and was not selected (see posting of two weeks ago).

That’s when the trouble began.  The day after I wrote the first blog posting under this title, I was working my usual volunteer Wednesday at the museum and in walks the author of said essay.  He wants to challenge the decision that he didn’t win any prize, as he was sure his essay was top-notch.  I tried to explain to him why his essay didn’t meet the guidelines, not to mention that it was somewhat insulting and grandiose.  He then wanted to know who were the readers, could he read the other essays and would we reconsider?  I was getting the same knot in my stomach I used to get when I tangled with college students over a paper, or worse, irritated parents.  I managed (or so I thought) to talk him down and accept the decision of the readers.  We shook hands and he left.  (Note: I knew he was home schooled–quite common out here and, in fact, several of the winners are home schoolers.  I asked him who was home schooling him and he said himself.  Really?  Is that legal, even here in Utah?  He had no answer when I inquired how he, as the instructor, advises him, as the student.)

A week later he showed back up again after I had left, this time with his older brother.  According to Bev (a very involved, long-time volunteer), who spoke with the brother, the older boy hinted they would threaten the museum with legal action.  They apparently left when they were assured the funding family would reread the losing essay yet again and reconsider.

After Bev called to bring me up to date, I lost a night’s worth of sleep.  The next morning, I called the matriarch of the funding family and shared my thoughts: that if the museum capitulated and reversed its decision on the essay, that was a slippery slope; word would get around that if you didn’t like a decision on an essay, just complain and the museum would cave in.  I have since been updated that 22 family members reread the essay and 22 family members all stood firm with the original position.

Last night, we handed out the awards at the start of the Syracuse City Council meeting so we could provide appropriate public recognition for these students.  We were prepared for a confrontation from the young man’s family, but they boycotted the ceremony, even though the younger sisters had won prizes (what a shame for the sister who won a $50.00 second prize and deserved the applause).  All went well and today I’ll write cover letters and mail out the unclaimed check and certificates.  Sigh….

Published in: on June 13, 2012 at 4:20 pm  Comments (1)  

That Was the Week That Was

I usually avoid writing about myself or daily doings as I figure no one is all that interested and it would get old after a while.  However, this past 7 days were full of ups and downs of all sorts, so I am breaking my personal “promise” and sharing the past week.

My week is pretty predictable; Monday is food shopping day, Tuesday is laundry (as are most days) and catch up day, Wednesday I head to the museum to volunteer my hours, Thursday is gardening and catch-my-breath day, Friday can be almost anything as my daughter is off work that day, and Saturday and Sunday are the normal weekend, gardening and church on Sunday.  Last Thursday I had a minor mishap with the garden hose and my glasses: hose 1 and glasses 0).  Yep, my beloved titanium frame ($$$) glasses bit the dust.  After tilting at windmills to try to find a place out here that would be able to replace the broken side piece, I gave up, out, and in and went on Tuesday to start all over again.  Wonder of wonders, Medicare covered the eye exam!  The luck ended there; due to my progressive prescription and love for the Transitions coating to turn the lenses into sunglasses (a must-have in Utah), by the time I selected a different style of titanium (they’re so light-weight and necessary as I never remove my eye wear) the bill was just above $900.00!!!!!  Yikes!  Last year when I replaced my glasses it was $600.00.  Inflation has set in!  On the bright side, it was buy one, get one free (I think it’s a come-on; I’m actually paying for both!), so I’m ending up with 2 pairs.  Being the fashion maven I am, I chose 2 different frames, coal and a surprising purple.  Am sooo glad I’m not going on any vacation this year as I’ll be wearing my holiday!

The broken glasses weekend also produced a purple belt in karate for Ethan and orange belts for Lara and Bob.  They passed their belt tests and the ceremony was Monday night.  I’m very proud of all three!  Congratulations!

Today, when we all wanted to see Venus passing in before the sun, a front came through and it turned cold, cloudy, and really windy!  This was sort of a repeat of Memorial Day weekend when Saturday and Sunday were rainy and chilly.  I had to batten down the hatches outside, as the wind was steady at about 35 mph with gusts up to 60!  I kept one eye on Ethan’s trampoline in the side yard as it was yearning to flip.  The empty inflatable kiddie pool ended up jammed under it and the tree branches were tossed about.  By mid-afternoon it was in the 40s with some rain, which, of course, converted to snow in the upper elevations.  And this was the day after a record-breaking 98 degrees!  The mountains have a light dusting on them again and north of here in Cache Valley I’ll wager folks are digging up tender vegetable plants as a hard freeze is predicted.

Our vegetables are finally taking hold (a few tomatoes still look a bit wan) and the beans are up .  We always try one or two new plants and this year it’s artichokes, acorn squash, and cantaloupe.  We’ll see how they do.

We’re redecorating here and there.  Lara painted the master bath a dark chocolate brown and it’s decadent and cocoon-like.  I dragged out a borrowed sewing machine and I’m sewing a new canvas laundry hamper bag for the bathroom as we can’t find a replacement one anywhere.  While I’m sewing, I’m also finishing a group sewing project for church: a new green altar frontal.  Several women have participated from design, to applique of said design, to my contribution of sewing the unit together.  It has to be ready to use this Sunday, so I’ll finish it and the matching bookmarks by week’s end.

Okay, so now you all know why I find other things to write about.  Scintillating my life is not; it just needs to be less expensive.  Note to self: Remove glasses when doing yard work.

Published in: on June 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm  Leave a Comment