SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — It was an emotional day in April when Sierra-at-Tahoe employees and passholders returned to the mountain to celebrate what would have been the resort’s 75th season. Eight months after the Caldor Fire burned its way up the Western Slope into the Tahoe Basin, scorching 221,835 acres, the resort wanted to convey to its stakeholders an important message: It’s not over.
“A lot of people saw it for the first time. There were a lot of tears,” said John Rice, general manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe. “When the fire came through, I was one of the last people there before we were told we had to leave. With a heavy heart, I knew something was going to happen.”
After sparking on Aug. 14, 2021, near Grizzly Flats, the Caldor Fire moved swiftly up the foothills, spurred by high winds and dry vegetation. Fire crews were stationed at the resort, where employees blasted buildings with snowmaking equipment and the resort’s insurance company covered the lodge and other offices with fire retardant.
Despite these efforts, over 70% of the vegetation spanning the resort’s 2,000 acres were burned, along with the maintenance facility, containing expensive snow equipment and tools. Five of the nine ski lifts and a magic carpet were damaged. Assessment of the fire’s destruction at Sierra-at-Tahoe is still underway, but it’s estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars.
“We wanted to make sure people know that we’re not done,” explained Rice. “It’s a beautiful place. We get a great amount of snow. The landscape is going to be different, but it’s still going to be awesome.”
Unable to open for the 2021-2022 season, Sierra-at-Tahoe gave passholders the option of a refund or an extension to the following winter.
“More than half of people kept their passes,” said Rice. “We were very honored that we have a loyal community that still believes in us.”
Sierra-at-Tahoe is located on land leased out by the U.S. Forest Service, so restoration work is a collaborative process with the agency. Removal of scorched, hazard trees has taken place near chairlifts, building and roads for worker safety, and additional felling is happening along the resort’s 46 ski trails.
The next phase of restoration, a vegetation management plan, is currently under review by the USFS.
“Our goal is to save every possible tree that could survive this. They will remove those that can’t, chip all the limbs and use that chipped wood as erosion control means,” said Rice. “When revegetation happens, they will come in and talk about replanting and putting native plants back in place to stabilize the soil and allow for regrowth.”
With funding through the USFS, donations facilitated through the El Dorado Community Foundation, and work from the El Dorado Resource Conservation District for the entire fire footprint, the restoration work will continue through 2022.
The final phase of restoration, yet to be submitted for evaluation to the USFS, is reimagining Sierra-at-Tahoe in light of its new reality.
“What can the future of Sierra-at-Tahoe look like given the new landscape? What new trails, lifts, buildings, or services can we look at now that the landscape is forever changed?” asks Rice. “It would include things like snowmaking, trail widening, and some new lifts. We’re no longer dealing with a pristine forest. We’ve got a burnt landscape, so how do we utilize the terrain and the natural resources to create a ski product that will be next level for people?”
With work ongoing through the spring, summer and fall, the goal is get skis on snow this winter.
“All of our energy is going toward getting all lifts and trails reopened this winter,” said Rice. “It’s an aggressive goal, but we have the support of our employees and our landlord and the El Dorado Resource Conservation District to get the resort open.”
To donate to the Caldor Fire restoration, visit eldoradocf.org.