Fire on the Mountain

What a dry winter and an early wildfire season mean for ski areas

Smoke from the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado. PHOTO: MICHAEL J. BLASER

Wildfire season came on hot and fast this year. Lightning and sparks from human activities, like target shooting, have ignited large-scale fires across the West. Dry beetle-kill trees sparked easily, and firefighters have been spread thin.

In Ruidoso, New Mexico, flames from the Little Bear Fire ripped through Ski Apache, scorching the slopes despite fire crews' efforts to fight the fire with snowmaking guns. At this point, Ski Apache plans to be open next winter, but things could change for it and other ski areas as fire season ramps up.

Wildfires run through the western mountains every summer, but this year could be different, and possibly worse. High temperatures and a lack of water from low snowfall have set off early burns. Colorado's High Park Fire is already the most destructive in the state's history and it's not expected to be contained until the end of July.

Ski areas in water-poor, fuel-rich areas, like Colorado and New Mexico, are the most likely to be in danger of fire, but the threat is serious across much of the West: Jackson Hole reported the driest June in history, and fires are burning in Nevada and Utah as well.

Anyone who skied south of Oregon, or west of the Atlantic Ocean this winter felt the absence of snow. By May, snowpack was at less than half of average across most of the Southwest, and now, according to the Department of Agriculture, western reservoir levels are both below capacity and below average.

Because of that, resorts are dialing in their fire control plans early. At Jackson Hole, Jon Bishop, the head of safety and risk management, says their main tactic is prevention and trying to suppress any potential danger, but that they train with the forest service and the local fire department to know how fight wildfires.

JHMR has all of their snowmaking hoses filled with water and ready to spray if a fire does start. "Last year, because of the substantial snowfall, we didn't need to charge them up till later in the summer," Bishop says. Jackson is lucky, because they get water from an aquifer, but other resorts are dependent on rainfall or rivers.

In Vail's Eagle County, water supplies are alarmingly low. According to Fire Inspector Gail McFarland this year’s river levels are below those of the 2002 drought, which was the worst in 300 years. McFarland says they have systems set up to divert water to where it's needed, but that they're seriously worried about the supply.

When fires do hit resorts, the damage can be lasting and brutal. Last July, the Las Conchas Fire burned down two lifts at northern New Mexico's Pajarito ski area. Tom Long, the resort's general manager, says it's incredibly hard to be prepared for a large-scale blaze, even with preventative measures in place. "When a fire of that magnitude comes through, the trees just virtually explode."

A year later, Pajarito is still recovering. The mountain suffered financially because they couldn't spin those lifts last winter. Long says their insurance was good and they're slowly rebuilding, but it's a long process, and they're dependent on volunteers to help with trail rebuilding and future fire mitigation.

Long says ski resorts always have to be hyper vigilant about fire danger, because of the nature of operating on burnable land. "It's one of those disadvantages you have of running a business in a forest," he says. "You need trees to run a ski area."