September 17, 2021

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Heavenly ski resort is running snow guns at full blast to save itself from the Caldor Fire – San Francisco Chronicle

3 min read

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — As the Caldor Fire burned eastward toward Heavenly Mountain Resort, Tahoe’s largest ski area, on Wednesday afternoon, resort General Manager Tom Fortune tracked its progression from a distance.

When the evacuation order came down for South Lake Tahoe on Monday, Fortune had driven around the lake to Northstar, a ski resort near Truckee, and set up an incident command center to help coordinate fire crews who were staging at Heavenly. At the time, the fire was several miles away from the ski area, separated by craggy ridges and steep canyons.

But by Wednesday afternoon, winds had carried the flame front deeper into the Tahoe Basin and threatened to spark fire at Heavenly’s 4,800-acre property overnight. Crews were performing last-minute preparations, trimming tree branches and clearing away dry ground debris. The resort’s massive network of snowmaking hydrants, positioned across 3,500 vertical feet of terrain, blasted water across lodges and lift terminals.

“I think we’re as prepared as can be at the moment,” Fortune said from his remote position at Northstar.

The fire’s trajectory carried it toward Heavenly’s highest point, Monument Peak, the 10,000-foot summit that dominates the South Lake landscape.

“If it stays on course, it might clip the top of the mountain,” Fortune said. “We’re ready for that if that happens.”

At the same time, spot fires had brought the Caldor Fire to the doorstep of the small ski resort community of Kirkwood, south of the main conflagration that threatened Heavenly. Plumes of smoke could be seen creeping over a granite ridge behind the historic Kirkwood Inn and Saloon, across Highway 88 from town. Flames were also moving toward the backside of the resort, near Thunder Mountain.

Fire crews had been working the past three days to prepare the nearly 300 estimated residences near the resort for structure defense: patrolling houses and condos, removing furniture and wood piles from yards and decks, and cutting tree limbs up to 15 feet from the ground. They had also put in contingency lines on the peaks surrounding Kirkwood to defend the valley from flames.

“We are keeping a close eye on it (the fire), but we feel pretty good about being able to maintain our valley’s safety,” said Tom Harris, captain of the Kirkwood Fire Department.

South Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood and several nearby mountain communities are under evacuation orders. The ski resorts employ hundreds of workers during the summer months, most of whom had left for Nevada, the north side of the lake and elsewhere by Wednesday.

Vail Resorts, based in Colorado, owns ski areas across North America, including Heavenly, Kirkwood and Northstar. Since evacuations came down, the company has helped provide food, shelter and mental health support to staffers under evacuation.

“We have been working around the clock with emergency fire responders to do everything we can to prepare and protect our resorts,” Susan Whitman, Vail Resorts’ senior manager of communications and resort marketing for the Tahoe region, wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “We have also ensured our facilities, from lifts to parking lots, have been available for emergency personnel.”

Some firefighters were stationed along the peaks surrounding Kirkwood as lookouts. As the fire edges closer, crews were watching for flying embers.

“Our goal here is to put any fire out immediately and prep the location so it doesn’t have any place to start. Prevent and mitigate,” said Jason Martin, a fire battalion chief from San Mateo County. “We want to keep the buildings standing and in good order for (people) to come home to.”

Back at Northstar, Fortune hoped for a change in the winds to at least slow the blaze as it approached his ski area. Heavenly isn’t just a tourist resort; it’s a place that supports locals, its base area nearly embedded in the surrounding neighborhood.

“This is about the community,” Fortune said. The resort “is our livelihood, it’s our job, but it’s also where we live.”

Sarah Ravani and Gregory Thomas are San Francisco Chronicle staff writers. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com, gthomas@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @sarravani, @GregRThomas

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