STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The small grass fire that broke out on the lower third of the Heavenly Daze trail at Steamboat Ski Area early on the evening of Sept. 19 was believed to have been caused by a careless smoker riding the gondola while it ferried guests to and from the final Sunset Happy Hour of the summer season at Thunderhead.
“We believe it was caused by a cigarette butt,” tossed out of the gondola,” ski area spokeswoman Loryn Kasten said Monday. “We had an employee on the gondola who called security at the same time other concerned guests were calling 911. We had staff on scene at first, and the fire department responded as well.”
Kasten said according to the information she received a ski area employee was first on the scene with a fire extinguisher and reported finding mostly burning embers and no visible flames. The fire was reportedly between three and four towers down from the top of the lift.
“I believe our team is trained to be super safe in that matter and knew to see what they could safely do,” Kasten said.
Steamboat Vice President of Mountain Operations Doug Allen said passengers on the gondola were off-loaded shortly after the fire was spotted, and the lift was shut down for about an hour as a precautionary measure.
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What isn’t widely known is that ski area personnel and firefighting agencies have been meeting for years to ensure they have the necessary adapters to couple firefighting hoses to snowmaking hydrants so they can deliver water to suppress a larger wildfire.
“We have met with local fire departments as well as the Forest Service fire unit at the beginning of each fire season to discuss how our snowmaking hydrants could best be used to assist them in fighting fire even to the extent of building adaptors so we can couple our hydrants to their hoses, pumper trucks, etc., because all the fittings are different,” Allen said.
The adapters are stored in a locked box at the maintenance shop.
Allen said he knows that snowmaking equipment has been used successfully at other ski areas. Although the emphasis here is on ensuring firefighters can hook up to snowmaking hydrants, during dry years in the past, they have kept snowmaking guns near on-mountain buildings, just in case.
But that strategy would not have been available this summer because the ski area’s snowmaking system has been down while it replaces its 33-year-old snowmaking pumps, located next to the Yampa River across U.S. Highway 40 from Casey’s Pond.
Kasten and Allen both expressed astonishment that someone would be careless enough to toss a cigarette butt into the grass in the midst of what has been an active wildfire season in Northwest Colorado. There are signs prohibiting smoking at the bottom and top of the gondola, and the base of the ski area is a smoke-free zone.
Sunday’s incident marked the second time this summer someone has carelessly started a small fire on the slopes. Kasten said there was a similar event earlier in the season near the disc golf course.
Routt County emergency manager Bob Struble reported Monday that the Silver Creek fire south of Steamboat Springs and east of Oak Creek in the area of Lynx Pass had become more active during the day, and a request was made to bring in an infrared sensing aircraft in order to map the fire’s heat.
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