NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – With the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire looming nearby, staff and firefighters at Sipapu Ski Resort say they’re doing all they can to protect the ski spot’s lifts, runs, and buildings. John Paul Bradley, the resort’s general manager gave KRQE News 13 a look at what’s being done to minimize the impact of the fire.
“It’s about two and a half miles away,” Bradley estimates. “It’s getting close.”
Burning nearly 300,000 acres including federal forest lands and private property, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire is now the largest fire in recorded state history. The fire’s growth over the last week help it the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy Fire as New Mexico’s largest fire on record.
Now, fingers of the fire are approaching Sipapu from the southeast. The ski and summer resort property sits off Highway 518, roughly 17 miles south of Taos, and nearly 30 miles northeast of Española.
On the mountain at the Sipapu resort, crews are using snowmakers to wet down important buildings and other structures.
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A snowmaker works to protect structures at Sipapu. Image from Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort.
“In conjunction with the fire teams, we’re watering areas that they recommend to help protect structures,” Bradley says. “So, things like the bottom of the lift terminals, our patrol station on top of the mountain, the lodge.”
Using snowmakers to wet structures isn’t a brand-new idea. Other ski areas have used the technique to fight fires in the past. In 2012, workers at Ski Apache, near Ruidoso, used snow blowers to wet down the area as flames approached.
The idea is to protect structures and increase the moisture content in the area, Bradley explains. The hope is that doing so minimizes the worst of the damage if flames reach Sipapu. And they’re taking other precautions, such as removing chairs off the lifts.
“We take chairs off the lift and then we run the lift,” Bradley says, “to keep the chairs moving so that it doesn’t get hot and snap and go to the ground. And if it does go to the ground, we don’t want a couple hundred thousand dollars’ worth of chairs falling to the ground as well.”
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Lift chairs lie on the ground after being removed from the chairlift cables. Photo from Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort.
Christiana Hudson, the marketing director for Sipapu, says that they’ve taken down more than 100 chairs. They then placed them in a wetted-down area with a firebreak to try to protect the chairs. They’re also moving the resort’s snowcats — tractor-like snowplows — to Peñasco, about 7.5 miles away, as the crow flies.
This is the first time Sipapu has had to take such drastic measures to protect the resort from a fire. Bradley recalls a smaller fire in years past that did require some evacuations.
“We’ve gone through the process of moving stuff into the parking lot and having to have generators to keep power going,” he says. But, “this is the first time we’ve had a strong fire backing in from the east, and especially of this magnitude.”
“The number of firefighters and activity here, at the resort right now, I haven’t seen that before,” he adds.
Bradley says that all the preparation means Sipapu, hopefully, is fairly well protected if the fire reaches the slopes.
“We’ve been trying to plan for fires for 20 years. I mean, that’s part of living out here and working in this sort of environment,” he says. “I don’t think you’re ever fully ready or ever have enough time or enough resources. But we’re looking pretty good, in terms of being able to get our stuff moved.”
And Bradley says although the flames haven’t quite reached the area, he expects the fire to arrive eventually. How well all the preparation serves the resort could depend on how the fire moves through the slopes.
“I think our best chance is that it backs down [the slopes] slowly,” he says. In that case, all the trail maintenance and wetting should help the land stand up to the fire’s heat.
But if fire rushes through the area, the outcome could be worse: “If it came in from down low and worked its way up the hill fast, it could be bad,” Bradley says.
And Bradley is quick to point out that it’s not just the ski area that’s in harm’s way. The area’s residents are in danger too.
“We’re in the same boat as a lot of folks now. And I feel very bad for our neighbors to the east,” he says. “I hope that we’re able to save this little piece of the Carson Forest.”
Previously, Sipapu was being used as an evacuation spot for residents who’d been displaced by the fire. But now, the evacuation site has been evacuated.
A small snow blower helps protect structures at Sipapu. Photo from Sipapu Ski & Summer Resort.