Ski resorts share strategies in Steamboat for wildfire preparedness
January 22, 2014
Steamboat Springs — In the middle of the ski season, wildfire preparedness was a hot topic among ski area executives Wednesday in Steamboat Springs.
Close to 800 people are in town during the middle part of this week for the National Ski Areas Association's 2014 Western Winter Conference and Trade Show. After hitting the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area for first tracks in the morning, conference attendees listened to experts at a variety of sessions. They covered everything from recent lawsuits involving in-bound avalanches to Winter Park Resort's new cutting-edge radio system.
The latest grooming technology was demonstrated during the afternoon on the See Me trail, and Ultra-Tech Lighting showed off their newly installed technology during night skiing Wednesday evening.
About 40 people sat in to hear about being prepared for wildfires and how snowmaking equipment can serve a dual purpose during the dry summer months when a wildfire is threatening expensive chairlifts, lodges and other ski area assets. The subject was especially timely coming off an active fire season with exceptionally devastating fires. Beetle-killed lodgepole pine trees continue to present a threat at many ski resorts in the Western United States. Climate change and land management policies also could be contributing to more complex fires that are threatening more property, said Erick Stahlin, who manages fires locally with the U.S. Forest Service.
"Now it's coming back to bite us," he said.
Justin Rowland, operations director for Ski Apache in New Mexico, said his resort used its snowmaking equipment and an estimated 8.2 million gallons of water to try to keep the Little Bear Fire from wreaking havoc in the resort. In comparison, Steamboat Ski Area uses about 97 million gallons of water each season.
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The June 2012 lightning-caused fire started about 1 1/2 miles from Ski Apache.
"We had a resort plan in place," Rowland said.
He recommended other ski areas do the same.
The ski area already had caches of firefighting equipment strategically placed on the mountain along with water trucks. The snowguns were turned on, not necessarily to put out the fire, but to raise the humidity in the area in an effort to keep the fire from spreading.
Resort crew employees — some who also were firefighters — focused on putting out spot fires caused by burning embers.
The fire burned a total of 44,000 acres and destroyed 250 structures, making it the most destructive fire in New Mexico history. The fire grew quickly because of high winds and came into the resort. It burned 65 acres at the at the ski area, which has 750 skiable acres. Apache lost two structures and three lifts. Repairs cost about $15 million.
Peter Stearns, mountain operations director at Sun Valley Resort in Idaho, also spoke during the session. His resort has been impacted by two large fires in the past six years.
The 2007 Castle Rock Fire threatened to wipe out the resort.
"We kind of realized the value of our snowmaking system at the fire," Stearns said.
Ski areas also have realized the importance of planning and learning from one another.
Kent Foster, the recreation program manager for the Hahn's Peak-Bears Ears Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service, said after the session that the ski area in Steamboat has done a good job to prepare for a worst-case scenario.
The ski area has fittings available to make sure its snowmaking hydrants can be adapted by fire departments such as Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue. The ski area also has a plan in place should a fire occur, and an inventory has been done of structures and other assets on the mountain. This will help firefighters protect all those chairlifts and buildings should there be a threat. Logging efforts also have been ongoing to remove fuels like dead lodgepole pine trees.