What if a wildfire were to ignite at Steamboat Resort? Here’s the plan for mitigation | SteamboatToday.com

What if a wildfire were to ignite at Steamboat Resort? Here’s the plan for mitigation

A dark sky forms over Steamboat Resort, potentially bringing rain but also the threat of lightning that could cause a wildfire on the mountain. (Photo by John F. Russell)

A wildfire threatening a ski resort isn’t entirely unfamiliar in Colorado. The 416 Fire, one of the largest in the state’s history, nearly took out Purgatory Ski Area outside Durango in 2018. Two years later, another wildfire claimed about 6 acres at the same mountain resort.

Such a massive blaze isn’t easy to recall having happened at Steamboat Resort, according to Corey Peterson, director of slope maintenance — at least not since he’s been with the resort.

But as the West continues to face severe drought and an already active wildfire season, having a wildfire break out at the resort isn’t an impossible scenario.

“We’re very lucky that we’ve gotten a little bit of rain,” said Sarah Jones, Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. director of sustainability and community engagement. “But as this summer is so dry, that’s really such a concern.”

In efforts to preserve water, the resort does not regularly water grass or trees on the mountain. Ski Corp. also has employees throughout the summer season frequently cutting down dead trees and keeping grass mowed to mitigate fire risk.

“If you’re taking care of the dead trees that are hazards, you’re creating a fuel break there where you don’t have that component at play in the event of a wildfire,” said Aaron Voos, U.S. Forest Service spokesperson with the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests and Thunder Basin National Grassland.

In the event of a wildfire, the resort would largely rely on its snowmaking equipment, which is kept full throughout the season. Ski Corp. also has trucks with water tanks ready to use in such an emergency.

The resort’s snowguns are located at the Four Points and Thunderhead lodges, which Peterson said are convenient locations.

“Our biggest asset really is our snowmaking system, because we can deliver water to a lot of places on the mountain,” Peterson said.

Carolina Menriquez, forester with the Colorado State Forest Service, said it is particularly important that Ski Corp. keeps its snowmaking guns at the ready throughout the summer, as fire crews in Routt County are already stretched thin.

“Luckily, we’re super close to the fire station here, but we can’t always count on that when resources are drained,” Menriquez said.

After a wind storm toppled trees and power lines at the resort in 2020, Menriquez said the Forest Service is still working to replant and restore the area.

“People love skiing through the trees, and in order to maintain that forest, we have to make sure those trees come back,” Menriquez said. “You have to be proactive in making sure it comes back and stays healthy and isn’t too much.”

Along with the risks of trees, grass and chairlifts catching on fire, Menriquez said condominiums, hotels and businesses surrounding the mountain would also be at risk.

“Personal responsibility and awareness is key to avoid starting anything from the get-go,” she said.

While Ski Corp. is completing demolition and construction at the base area, Jones said there are protocols in place to ensure the work does not create a spark.

Because the upper portion of the mountain is on Forest Service land, flammable items of any kind are banned, whether or not they are being ignited.

“We do everything we can to make sure (fire) doesn’t happen,” Jones said.

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