‘It looked like a volcano erupting’
VAIL – Bryan Kohrmann saw the orange glow from the Vail fire station. That glow turned out to be flames from Vail Mountain, and one of the biggest eco-terrorist attacks in the United States. Those arson fires destroyed or heavily damaged several buildings, the biggest of which was the 33,000-square-foot Two Elk restaurant.Kohrmann, who now works on the firefighting crew at the Eagle County Airport, was then working part-time for the Vail Fire Department. He was one of three firefighters on duty the morning of Oct. 18. The alarm came just after 4 a.m. Almost an hour later, the crew and one truck was at Vail Ski Patrol Headquarters.It took about an eyeblink for the firefighters to realize they weren’t going to save much.”We were pretty calm,” Kohrmann said of the crew’s arrival at patrol headquarters. “We knew right away it was too big, so we made sure there were no people in it. Then we saw Two Elk on fire, too.”The several arson fires eventually brought a crew of nearly 100 firefighters up the winding, increasingly muddy road from Vail to the fire scene at nearly 11,000 feet elevation.With that many firefighters from that many departments, the scene at the top of the mountain was chaotic. Adding to the chaos were the 70 or so Vail Resorts employees at the scene.”They were emotionally involved in it, so they were difficult to coordinate,” Vail Fire Chief John Gulick said.
Gulick was asleep at his home near Eagle when the first alarm came in. Hustling up the valley, he saw the glow from Vail Mountain at Wolcott. “There was no wind, so there was just a column of black smoke coming up,” Gulick said.’Like a volcano’When he arrived, the fires were raging.”There was 500 gallons of diesel fuel on fire at the top of Chair Five,” Gulick said. “It looked like a volcano had erupted. At (patrol headquarters) there were oxygen bottles blowing up and propane tanks exploding.”At the scene, about the only thing firefighters could do was protect things that weren’t on fire yet. Gulick was the last firefighter off the mountain, nearly 12 hours after the first alarm came in.
‘Like a personal assault’In Vail Village, locals remember the days after the fire as tense ones.”It was scary, we didn’t know what else was going to happen,” said Sandy Manning, now the manager of The Toy Store on Bridge Street. “We’d never had anything like that happen before. It was like the outside world had invaded.”Several residents were rocked by the fires.”People in Vail felt a deep sense that we were violated,” long-time resident and business owner Ron Riley said. “We really felt is was a personal attack.”John Kemmer, owner of The Toy Store, lives across the valley from Golden Peak. He remembers waking up that morning and seeing the flames leaping from the mountain.After learning the group the Earth Liberation Front had taken responsibility for the fires, Kemmer and his friends thought, “How ridiculous to burn a timber lodge that they’ll have to cut more trees to rebuild.”Riley said others in Vail came together after the fires.
“The community really rallied around it,” Riley added. “Some people didn’t recognize the sense of connection they had with the community until this.”The Two Elk FiresWhen: Oct. 18, 1998Where: Vail Mountain What burned: Two Elk Restaurant, Vail Ski Patrol Headquarters, much of the upper terminal of the High Noon lift (Chair Five).How big was Two Elk? 33,000 square feet, just a bit smaller than the City Market store in Eagle.What was damaged: Two more buildings at the top of the Mountaintop Express lift (Chair Four), another ski patrol building near the top of the Sourdough lift (Chair 14), and another building at the top of the Northwoods Express lift (Chair 11).Estimated damage: $12 million
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