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Beautiful Balloons -- SPOKANE -- Saturday morning shoppers may encounter a rather strange undertaking at River Park Square Mall. More than 2,000 balloons will be folded, twisted and bound together to create Christmas trees, penguins and an igloo.

Behind the project is a Gonzaga public relations major who also works at the Children's Museum.

"This is something I do for the museum, to create awareness about what it does in this community," says Ryan Oelrich, the balloon artist. "Basically we show up with five volunteers and my sister Rebecca on Saturday morning and get ready to blow up balloons." The sculptures will be located in First Night's space on the second floor of the mall. Starting at 11 am, they'll blow up 2,500 balloons to be exact, and, yes, they do use their mouths and a few hand pumps.

"It's the type of balloons you can make animals out of, and they are filled with plain air," says Oelrich. "I've been doing this for seven years, starting in Vegas. I used it to work with street kids there, so I have some experience."

Oelrich doesn't used advanced computer programming or CAD models to construct the sculptures.

"I just sit down and write it out on a piece of paper, and then I count in my head how many balloons I need," he says. "We already built a Christmas tree at River Park Square Mall. We are going to do another tree that's 15 feet tall, a giant snowman about 12 feet, then a big igloo and bunch of penguins." Construction is expected to be completed at 8 pm on the same day.

Oelrich is also a featured artist at the First Night celebration. During that event, children will help him construct a giant Chinese dragon to be carried in the New Year's procession.

But from an artist's perspective, aren't balloons sort of fleeting?

"They're just like rainbows -- they are beautiful and amazing while they are there," says Oelrich. "But all my sculptures eventually pop."

Crook Alert -- SPOKANE -- It's not only the season to be jolly; it's the season to be extra careful. This past weekend, crooks had great success getting away with holiday-crazed people's purses, CDs and wallets -- plus assorted tools taken from wide-open garages.

A statement released by the Spokane County Sheriff's office mentioned a string of incidents, and people are making the same mistakes over and over again.

There was the woman who left her truck to warm up in front of her house. She lost not only the truck, but also her credit cards and her cell phone.

"State law prohibits leaving a running motor vehicle unattended," says Dave Reagan, the Sheriff's spokesperson. "But more importantly, doing so is an invitation to for a thief to take advantage and make off with your car or truck." He adds that it's especially important at this time of the year to not leave attractive items like CDs, cameras, purses and tools visible in vehicles. Lock them in the trunk.

At least a handful of people lost purses and wallets left unattended in shopping carts while they were busy comparing the holiday sale prices, and several unlocked bikes were stolen from yards or in front of businesses.

"Don't display a mountain of wrapped gifts in front of a window while you're away for work," says Reagan.

Finally, tell your neighbors if you are going to be gone for the holidays. Hold mail and papers, or have someone take it in for you every day.

Still Burning -- RATHDRUM -- Safe Air For Everyone (SAFE), a non-profit organization dedicated to eliminating grass and field burning in North Idaho, has just released its findings on the impacts of this season's burning on the prairie.

SAFE Executive Director Patty Gora says the state of Idaho's smoke management efforts are a failure.

"The state may have started the so-called smoke management process with good intentions, but it ended up being a complete sham," says Gora. 'The growers got everything they wanted -- arbitrary changes to existing burn calls, a closed-door deal that allowed them to ignore their promise not to burn on Fridays and agencies that simply looked the other way when they burned more acreage than recommended."

People with respiratory difficulties still had no prior warning as to when burning was to take place.

"There was no place to hide," she says. "No advance warning for citizens with respiratory conditions."

SAFE plans to continue its fight to protect public health from the field burning. The entire evaluation of the 2002 season -- "Grass Field Burning and Public Health: The 2002 Burn Season White Paper" is available at
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