The massive forests of the Sierra Nevada range have been under siege in recent years by California’s relentless wildfire season. It was only a matter of time before a ski resort got in the way.
The Caldor Fire, which began on Aug. 4 in the foothills east of Sacramento, quickly surged up the bone-dry western slope of the Sierra, consuming 221,775 acre of brush and timber and forcing the evacuation of communities around the southern edges of Lake Tahoe before being essentially contained by early October.
And in the path of California’s 15th-largest-ever wildfire stood Sierra-at-Tahoe, a mid-size resort a few miles southwest of Tahoe that is popular with day trippers from the Sacramento region and the Bay Area.
Sierra was nearly destroyed: The wildfire burned more than 80 percent of the vegetation at the 2,000-acre resort; six of their nine chairlifts were put out of commission, and $5 million worth of equipment was destroyed when one of the outbuildings was engulfed in flames.
But though the damage is excessive, it hasn’t dampened the spirit of John Rice, the resort’s long-time general manager.
“We have been busy bringing experts to Sierra to evaluate and help us outline our plans to open the resort safely and as soon as possible,” Rice said recently. “Already a tremendous amount of work has been done (along the access road) to remove fire weakened trees, and engineers are making progress in the effort to repair affected lifts.”
Although the work is expected to be a tough uphill slog, Rice believes his crew will get Sierra operating for its 75th season in a timely fashion.
“I want (our customers) to be confident in knowing that our goals remain the same: To give (them) the high-quality ski and snowboard experience (they) are accustomed to and to adapt and persevere as we always have,” he said.
“The Sierra-at-Tahoe spirit is alive and well!”
Heavenly, Kirkwood Escape Blaze
While Sierra, in Rice’s words, “got hammered”, the nearby resorts of Heavenly and Kirkwood, both Vail Resorts properties that used their snow-making machines to douse buildings and trees as a preventative measure, got away unscathed: The Caldor Fire crept up to Kirkwood’s doorstep before being turned back, while the conflagration never really threatened Heavenly.
“We are grateful to share we have not found any direct fire damage to critical infrastructure (at either resort),’’ said Doug Pierini, senior VP and CEO of Vail’s Western Region. “Thanks to to the hard work and tremendous efforts of those on the ground, both resorts’ winter downhill trails and features, resort lodges, equipment and chairlifts … all remain intact.
“We extend out deepest appreciation to Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, local fire departments and first responders who have worked nonstop to keep our beloved resorts protected from the fire.”
As a result, both resorts are anticipating to start spinning their lifts around Thanksgiving.
“Should snow conditions permit, we expect to open Heavenly on Friday, Nov. 19, and Kirkwood on Friday, Dec. 3,” Pierini said.