Aug 24, 2017

Landowner who accidentally started 2016 Whit Fire could face big bill

The Bureau of Land Management says a spark from a citizen’s metal grinder started last year’s Whit Fire west of Cody — and says that person could potentially be held responsible for the millions of dollars that it cost to suppress it.

Sarah Beckwith, a regional spokeswoman for the BLM, said generally that the agency is “compelled to seek cost recovery for the suppression and rehabilitation of a fire area if a responsible party is identified.”

“At this time, BLM Wyoming has not filed any charges, but the Whit Fire case remains open,” Beckwith added. “There are many ways the BLM can move forward with human-caused fires and seek cost restitution — administratively, civilly or criminally.”
A helicopter douses the Whit Fire with water in August 2016. Cody News Co. file photo by Toby Bonner

The BLM is still working to total up the cost of fighting the Whit Fire, as there were multiple agencies involved, she said. The BLM alone incurred roughly $1.4 million worth of costs, Beckwith said.

The blaze started on Aug. 2, 2016, on Whit Creek Road, south of the North Fork Highway in the Wapiti area. Another property owner’s home was destroyed and the fire went on to threaten a number of other homes on both the North and South forks of the Shoshone River while burning through 12,387 acres. More than 700 people worked the fire at its peak, along with many pieces of equipment ranging from trucks and helicopters to water-scooping planes. At one point, hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes on the South Fork.

A couple days after the Whit Fire began, BLM Cody Field Office Manager Delissa Minnick said at a public meeting that, “It appears to have been human-caused, with no malicious intent — an accident.”

But BLM officials were generally mum on the cause in the following months. In December, the bureau told the Tribune the cause remained under official investigation.

Last week, the Tribune inquired again and Beckwith said, “The Whit Fire was caused by a private landowner using a metal grinder which threw a spark.”

“Further details are not being released at this time because the case is still pending,” she said.
Beckwith said generally that the BLM “is compelled by policy to investigate human-caused fires because we want to have a robust fire prevention program and we can't prevent fires if we don't know what is causing them.”

 "At this time, BLM Wyoming has not filed any charges, but the Whit Fire case remains open," said Sarah Beckwith, a BLM spokesperson.
She later added that, “on each case we work closely with the Office of the Solicitor who legally advises the BLM on federal policy and other laws to ensure that when cost restitution is sought, the intricacies of each case are analyzed.”

Each case, Beckwith said, is worked carefully to “ensure we are meeting our duties to the American people.”

Meanwhile, Shoshone National Forest officials announced on Aug. 10 that an investigation by U.S. Forest Service law enforcement determined last month's June Fire was caused by a lightning strike that had occurred some time earlier. Such events are known as holdover fires, because they remain dormant for a significant period of time.

The June Fire was spotted and reported June 18 on the North Fork of the Shoshone River; it burned 1,618 acres.

“While the June Fire continues to put up small amounts of smoke from time to time, local crews have begun rehabilitation assessments and restoration work, ” Shoshone officials said in the Aug. 10 release.

Jul 7, 2017

Subsidized by taxpayers, Cody library cafe keeps losing money

Park County Commissioner Joe Tilden posed a question to county library leaders last month: “What’s more important to you, buying new books or keeping the Bistro open?”

Tilden was referring to the Cody library’s Biblio Bistro. The county-owned and -operated cafe sells sandwiches, soups, coffee, smoothies and other foods and beverages while serving as a public meeting place.
 
It’s also heavily subsidized.

Preliminary budget documents show that, from last July through May, the Bistro lost nearly $46,300. 

The figures mean the restaurant brought in an average of about $200 per day in sales — only covering about half of its expenses.

In the next fiscal year, which started Saturday, library officials project the Biblio Bistro will again run in the red and cost the county $49,556. The losses will continue to be absorbed as part of the Park County Library System’s overall budget.

“I’m just pointing out that, if you have deficiencies in other areas, there’s some money there that could be had,” Tilden said of the Bistro during a June 20 discussion of the budget, adding, “It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s an amenity.”

“But then so is a library, in a sense,” responded Park County Library System Director Frances Clymer. “It’s a public service; it’s a public utility that serves people from every walk of life — man, woman, child — regardless of whether they’ve got lots of bucks or no bucks. And to me, that’s really important to provide a community living room — basically [that] is what the Bistro is — for people who maybe have no place else to meet friends in a comfortable way.”

The kitchen and dining area came with the building, known as the Park County Complex, when the county bought it from Marathon Oil in 2005.

The Bistro has always been envisioned as an extra service for Cody library patrons and not as a money-making business. Wary of competing with private coffee shops and restaurants in Cody, county commissioners have hamstrung the library cafe by prohibiting it from advertising or catering outside the building. Prices are comparable to other restaurants; a Reuben sandwich, for example, goes for $8.50 and a 12 ounce latte for $2.75.

The ultimate goal is for the operation to break even, but since July 2009, county budget documents show the Biblio Bistro has lost roughly $320,000 — bringing in around $425,000 in revenue against $746,000 worth of expenses. Commissioner Loren Grosskopf noted the deficits are actually a little larger, as those figures do not include the benefits of the Bistro’s one full-time employee.

The cafe’s annual losses have long been tracked and discussed by library leaders and commissioners, but with county dollars tight, the Biblio Bistro got some extra scrutiny last month.

To get the budget to balance for the coming fiscal year, the five-member Park County Library Board opted to set aside no money for books, DVDs or other audio-visual materials. Library leaders will still buy those items, but they will use money previously saved up with the state library system, Clymer said.

That budgeting decision prompted Tilden’s question about whether Clymer saw books or the Bistro as more important.

Commissioner Jake Fulkerson also inquired about having no money in the budget for books and other materials.

“But what about next year?” Fulkerson asked. “I mean, this isn’t sustainable.”

Clymer said that, when the saved up money runs out, the library will seek grants and look at other avenues of funding — including the Park County Library Foundation.

“We have other sources. They’re not huge, but they’re there, and so I think it’s really kind of your call whether or not you wish to continue to support the Bistro,” she told the commission. “It’s in your hands.”

Commissioners disagreed, repeatedly saying they were only making suggestions and were not ordering the library board, whose members they appoint and oversee, to make any changes to the cafe’s operations.

“I’ll support your decision now, but you talk about, ‘Well, we’ve cut all the books that are so important to the library system.’ And I’m saying there’s $50,000 that, if you want books, there it is,” Tilden told Clymer. “The choice is up to you.”
 
The Cody library’s Biblio Bistro serves as a gathering place for many people, including these knitters, shown enjoying time at the Bistro in this October 2014 file photo. Photo courtesy Park County Library System
While it’s abnormal to have no money budgeted for books, library leaders have been putting more money toward the Bistro than books for some time, budget documents show: Over the past few years, library leaders have spent between $30,000 and $39,000 on new books for the Cody library and between $49,000 and $55,000 subsidizing the Bistro.

There also is an apparent misconception among county officials that the cafe’s bottom line has been improving.

“It’s better than it used to be,” French said at last month’s meeting, echoing comments that have been made in past years. “We need to keep cutting that deficit.”

“Yep, and we work on it every year,” responded Clymer. She added later that, “I believe we’re getting there, bit by bit.”

However, county budget documents show that, while the library has reduced the amount of money spent on Bistro salaries since it opened, the bottom line has actually gotten worse.

In fact, in the last fiscal year — from July 2015 to June 2016 — the Bistro posted its worst year on record: The Bistro incurred $103,621 worth of expenses and lost nearly $55,200 of that, meaning customers’ purchases covered less than half — 46.7 percent — of the Bistro’s expenses.

The bottom line appears to have improved this fiscal year, though, based on the first 11 months, the Biblio Bistro was on a pace to lose roughly $50,000. That would put it roughly in-line with the past five years.

County budget documents show the Bistro’s best years were actually its first three, when annual losses ranged between $10,000 and $31,000.

  “They’re going to have to get better or there’s going to be drastic changes or shut it down — one or the other,” said Park County Commissioner Tim French.
In an interview after the budget meeting, French said his comments about improved numbers were based on comments from library leaders.

“They’re going to have to get better or there’s going to be drastic changes or shut it down — one or the other,” he said of the figures.

However, French also noted that, viewed another way, the library system and county government as a whole are also money-losing operations — providing services that are not offset by revenue.

“The feedback I get, the public really likes it [the Biblio Bistro], so they’re willing to support it with their property taxes and their sales taxes; they’re willing to support that loss,” French said. “You know, it’s all in how you’re looking at it.”

At the June 20 meeting, commissioner Grosskopf wondered if a partnership with Northwest College to offer culinary classes in the Bistro’s kitchen could be revived, perhaps bringing in some revenue to narrow the deficit. Several years ago, commissioners questioned whether the Biblio Bistro could be privatized, but Clymer said many library cafes leased out to private operators have failed within months.

Park County Library Board Member Greg Bevenger suggested the county consider providing extra funding for the Bistro, so the losses don’t have to be covered by the library system’s budget alone.

“That facility serves more than just something at the library. I mean, there’s a lot of people that go up there just to have a quiet place to talk business or other kinds of things,” Bevenger said.

He said library leaders are in a bit of a quandary: not wanting to compete with local businesses while also trying to support the Bistro. Bevenger also noted the negative consequences of closing the cafe, including laying off the staffers — composed of a full-time manager and four part-time/on-call positions.

Grosskopf suggested there was an in-between option, where the Bistro could perhaps stop selling fully prepared meals and offer simpler and less labor-intensive fare like crackers, cookies and baked goods.

“Definitely, I like the Bistro, no doubt about it, but there are other options,” Grosskopf said.
“I don’t think it would be the same, though,” Bevenger replied later.

The Park County Library System’s overall proposed budget is $1.66 million. The county’s overall budget, which will likely be revised until it’s finalized this month, is currently estimated at $23.39 million.

Jun 15, 2017

Guide dies during kayak trip on Yellowstone Lake

A 23-year-old kayak guide died in Yellowstone Lake on Wednesday while trying to rescue a client who had capsized.

Guide Timothy Hayden Ryan Conant, of Salt Lake City, was part of a group that included nine clients and three guides, Yellowstone National Park officials said in a Thursday news release. The group was in the West Thumb area of the lake, north of Grant Village.

The West Thumb area of Yellowstone National Park is shown in 2014. Photo courtesy Reuben Francis Cornel under CC BY SA
The kayaking client Conant attempted to save was rescued by the other guides and brought to shore before rangers arrived on scene to help Conant. The client was transported to the park clinic and treated for hypothermia, Yellowstone officials said.

Park rangers, who responded in a patrol boat, found Conant floating in the water. Attempts to revive him using CPR were unsuccessful, park officials said. A medical helicopter was summoned to Grant Village, but Conant was pronounced dead before take off.

“Our hearts are with the Conant family after this terrible loss,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a statement.

Park officials said Conant worked as a guide for Oars, a company based out of Angel Camp, California. Oars has offered non-motorized boat tours in Yellowstone since 1996. This was Conant’s first season working for the company as a guide, park officials said.

The average year-round temperature of the lake is 43 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature, a person can survive in the water for only 20-30 minutes, Yellowstone officials said. They said Thursday that they are continuing to investigate the incident.

Conant’s death was the first in Yellowstone Lake since 1997, when two people died while canoeing. However, it was the second death in the park this month. On June 7, a 53-year-old Illinois man, Jeff Murphy, died in an apparent fall on Turkey Pen Peak near Yellowstone’s North Entrance.

Additionally, on Tuesday night, park officials said a 21-year-old North Carolina man, Gervais Dylan Gatete, suffered severe burns after falling in a hot spring in the Lower Geyser Basin. Gatete was an employee for Xanterra Parks and Resorts, a Yellowstone concessionaire.

Jun 9, 2017

Illinois hiker falls to his death in Yellowstone

Search crews found the body of a 53-year-old Illinois man on Friday in Yellowstone National Park, concluding he apparently died in a fall in a mountainous area near the park's North Entrance.

Jeff Murphy
Jeff Murphy of Batavia, Illinois, had left on a day hike from the Rescue Creek Trail to Turkey Pen Peak on Wednesday morning. Park officials say it appears Murphy fell to his death on Turkey Pen Peak.

“All of us at Yellowstone extend our sympathy to the Murphy family for their tragic loss,” Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

Yellowstone crews started searching for Murphy on Thursday when his wife reported that he had failed to check in; Friday's search efforts involved eight hiking teams, five dog teams, four horse teams and a helicopter.

The Rescue Creek Trail was closed during the search. It has since reopened, but Yellowstone officials say visitors should expect temporary closures in the area until their investigation is complete.

Jun 8, 2017

Snowmelt causing some flooding on South Fork, around Meeteetse


A flood watch is in effect for the North and South Forks of the Shoshone River west of Cody through Sunday, and the Greybull River has spilled over its banks near Meeteetse.

“The rivers are definitely full and raging,” said Park County Engineer Brian Edwards.

On Monday, the upper end of the South Fork of the Shoshone began flooding over the road, and county crews had to divert water there to keep the road open in that area, Edwards said.

A Park County employee uses a trackhoe to remove debris from the front of a bridge over the Greybull River on County Road 3XQ near Meeteetse. Photo courtesy Park County Road and Bridge
The County Road and Bridge Department is busy working to keep bridges free of debris and to shore up bridges by filling in places behind them where material has washed out, he said.

On the South Fork, drainage from Aldrich Creek comes into the river at a sharp angle, aiming into the side of a bridge near the Ishawooa trailhead.

“It keeps cutting farther and farther into the road,” Edwards said. “We have to really watch that one.”
Preventing damage to bridges is the county’s main focus right now in the South Fork and Meeteetse areas, he said.

County crews removed a bunch of debris Tuesday morning that washed up against a bridge on Road 3LE in the Roach Gulch area near Meeteetse. Road 3SL in the same area is under water, but still passable, Edwards said.

“There is a great deal of fallen trees and branches that are being washed down the rivers in the Meeteetse area,” Edwards said. That can begin a buildup of debris and redirect the flow of the floodwater, potentially damaging bridge supports.

“Once water goes behind a bridge, it can wash out pretty fast, so we’re trying to keep that from happening,” he said.

“We’re expecting more problems [Thursday], too,” Edwards said Wednesday. “We just take it day by day and keep an eye on things. Hopefully, we can keep everything shored up.”

With the forecast predicting highs in 90s today (Thursday) and Friday, the National Weather Service issued a flood watch Tuesday for the Shoshone River Basin west of Cody.

“We’re going to be looking at temperatures in the low to mid 90s in the lower elevations; and above 10,000 feet, in the low to mid 70s,” said Tim Troutman, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service office in Riverton.

Those high temps are 15 to 20 degrees above average for this time of year, Troutman said.

With a foot or more of snow still covering most of the mountains in western Wyoming, “we’re definitely looking at some sharp increases in runoff,” he said. “We’re forecasting minor flooding Friday and Saturday afternoon, and that’s definitely expected to continue as we’re moving up to and including this weekend.”

Gusty winds of 10-20 mph are forecast for today and Friday in advance of a cold front, further accelerating the snowmelt and increasing the potential for flooding, Troutman said.

Just past the bridge, County Road 3SL in the Roach Gulch area near Meeteetse is underwater from flooding on the Lower Greybull River. Photo courtesy Park County Road and Bridge
During high runoff, people should avoid walking or driving through floodwater.

“If you see water getting close to and covering the road, it’s important not to drive through or cross those areas,” he said.

The National Weather Service’s advice is, “Turn around, don’t drown.”

People planning to travel this week should check on the road conditions by calling 511 or visiting www.wyoroad.info, Troutman said.

He said the Snake River basin near Jackson also is under a flood watch, while, in Fremont County, multiple rivers are all approaching or overflowing their banks and could cause problems on highways.
Troutman said a cold front will arrive with the weekend, and it will cool temperatures down to highs in the mid 70s, but with winds of 15-25 mph.

The cooler temperatures “will result in a lessening of the snowmelt as we head into the early part of next week,” he said. “In the higher elevations, the highs will be in the mid to upper 50s, with lows in the 30s at night.”

Then, for the following eight to 12 days, the weather will be slightly cooler than normal, he said.

Man who opened fire in Walmart parking lot dies in prison

A man who was serving a lengthy prison sentence for opening fire in the Cody Walmart parking lot back in 2007 has died behind bars.

Chester Darral Fletcher, 72, died on June 2 at the Wyoming Medium Correctional Institution in Torrington “from a lengthy illness,” according to a news release from the Department of Corrections.

Fletcher had been incarcerated since Cody police arrested him on July 9, 2007 — hours after he tried shooting a former roommate outside Walmart.

Fletcher narrowly missed the man with one bullet — apparently grazing a lunch bag the man was carrying on his bicycle — while another of the five shots ripped into an empty mini-van parked in the lot.

Chester Fletcher
Concerns about Fletcher’s competency were raised throughout his case, but District Court Judge Steven Cranfill ultimately found Fletcher was fit to stand trial. He pleaded guilty to attempted voluntary manslaughter and judge Cranfill, going along with the recommendation of the Park County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, sentenced him to 18 to 20 years in prison.

At sentencing, Cranfill said Fletcher’s “only remorse was that [his roommate] was not killed or seriously injured” and noted he’d put other members of the community in danger.

Fletcher had served a little less than 10 years at the time of his death. He was not expected to become eligible for parole until November 2021, according to Department of Corrections records.

Fletcher’s attorneys had described him as being in failing health — suffering from diabetes, seizures and mental health problems — essentially since he was imprisoned.

His motive for the shooting was a decade-long grudge over a $7,000 civil judgment his former roommate had won against him for back rent and unauthorized credit card usage, court records say. That 1998 judgment led to Fletcher’s motorcycle being seized and auctioned off, which Fletcher saw as theft.

“i am being halt lock down for some thing any one else would when theyer property is being stolden,” Fletcher wrote in an error-riddled letter to the Tribune in March 2009, while awaiting trial.

At his sentencing hearing that summer, Fletcher told the court that, “When somebody steals from you, you don’t let 'em do it,” though he indicated that had only meant to fire one warning shot into the air.

After his arrest, and for years after his conviction, Fletcher’s attorneys argued that he was unable to grasp that what he had done was wrong.

A psychologist from the Wyoming State Hospital evaluated Fletcher several times while the case was pending and found that, while he had a low IQ and suffered from a paranoid personality disorder, he was competent to stand trial. A psychiatrist hired by the defense disagreed, but Cranfill sided with the state. The Wyoming Supreme Court later upheld the judge’s ruling.

After the appeal was denied, defense attorneys asked Cranfill to reduce Fletcher’s sentence in late 2011.

“Without a sentence reduction, Mr. Fletcher is effectively condemned to die in prison without ever fully understanding why he is there,” wrote attorney Diane Courselle and student intern Samm Lind of the University of Wyoming’s Defender Aid Program.

Prosecutors objected, with then-Deputy County Attorney Sam Krone writing that Fletcher was “a man hell-bent on vengeance; vengeance which will eventually compel the defendant to track down [his roommate] and finish the job.” Krone also noted how the incident had jeopardized others.

Cranfill declined to reduce the sentence.
~ By CJ Baker

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