Tahoe ski resorts fire up snow guns to save structures, lifts

A snow gun on the California side of Heavenly Mountain Resort. (Provided)


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Snowmaking machines have been fired up in desperate attempts to save Lake Tahoe ski resorts from going up in flames.

With the Caldor Fire bearing down on Heavenly and Kirkwood mountain resorts, Vail Resorts officials said they’ve turned on their snow guns to help firefighters in their attempts to stop the blaze that has grown to 210,259 and is 25% contained as of Thursday morning.

The fire on Wednesday afternoon was approaching the Kirkwood community with spot fires being reported there, but officials said at that time it was not yet in “Kirkwood proper.”

Fan guns have been set up in the area to spread water on critical buildings and lifts.

A snow gun at Sierra-at-Tahoe. (Provided/John Rice via Josh Edelson/AFP

“During this time, while our property and structures are important, it’s the people that remain our top priority,” said Vail Resort officials in a statement Wednesday.

Other defenses being used currently are snowmaking hydrants that are pressurized and ready, along with hoses that have been put out around the mountain for the firefighters to use.

Facilities around the mountain, including the parking lots and lifts, have been made available for personnel. Team members have been evacuated from the facilities and have been provided with emergency support services.

“Our hearts go out to those who have been affected and we stand now, as always, with the Tahoe community,” said a statement.

All work has been done in close communication with Cal Fire, the United States Forest Service fire team, the local Fire Department, and other local organizations.

Vail Resorts is following Sierra-at-Tahoe, which began planning to use snowmakers about a week ago, when management realized the fire could potentially make it up the canyon.

“We had them in place preventatively and we had a snow-making system all charged up and ready to go,” said General Manager John Rice. “As the fire got to Camp Sacramento and started coming toward us, we turned them on.”

Along with the snowmaking machines, sprinklers were placed on the roofs, and continuously ran for three days to prevent further damage from the fire.

Rice reported that the upper maintenance shop was lost among other buildings. The building, which was made completely of cinder block, burned unexpectedlywhile other buildings were saved.

Rice explained a crew came out from AGI Insurance, and helped others preparing the mountain for the fire. One key to protecting buildings was thermo-gel fire retardant the crew used on the outside walls of buildings.

“That and the sprinklers are what saved our buildings,” said Rice.

Rice said along with applying the gel, the AGI crew went out with weed whackers and chainsaws for nine days straight, and stayed to help protect major buildings when the fire came through.

“They just showed up and said, ‘We’re here to help you,'” said Rice.

The snowmakers, fire retardant gel, and sprinklers made all the difference when the smoke cleared from Sierra-at-Tahoe, proving that snowmaking equipment may be the future of fighting fires.

Diamond Peak Director of Marketing and Sales Paul Raymore said that using snowmaking machines has been a fairly standard practice within Diamond Peak’s emergency plans, when the snowmakers are available.

“They’ve always been a part of the wildfire emergency plan in the event it was needed to be deployed quickly,” he said.

Although there is no immediate threat of the Caldor Fire reaching Diamond Peak at this point, Raymore said that the snowmakers owned by the mountain have already been moved out and are ready to be used if needed.

The Caldor Fire has already claimed 729 residential and commercial structures, while damaging an additional 43 structures. So far homes in the basin have been saved.

A snow gun shoots water from atop Powderbowl Express. (Provided)

Miranda Jacobson is a Staff Writer with the Tahoe Daily Tribune, a sister publication to the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at

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