TWIN BRIDGES, Calif. — The Caldor Fire was one of multiple fires blazing simultaneously in August 2021.
The Caldor alone was responsible for scorching more than 221,000 acres, including 80% of the South Lake Tahoe ski resort Sierra-at-Tahoe.
Bryan Hickman, the resort’s director of operations, was devastated.
“A lot of people who have grown up skiing here like myself, when they first saw that, their heart sank,” said Hickman.
They were forced to close all of last season, but now, Sierra-at-Tahoe is celebrating their comeback, made extra special thanks to a massive amount of snow.
But between the catastrophic fire, and periods of drought, the resort is learning to adapt to extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change.
“It’s kind of an all-or-nothing,” said Hickman. “This year, we’ve seen record-breaking amount of snow in a short period of time. In other years, we have very little snow in the course of a whole season.”
The fire came through the West Bowl, and what remains is an eerie contrast of bright white snow amongst charred trees.
In order to rebuild, crews had to work quickly.
This past summer, 14,000 trees were removed, and new chair lift haul ropes were installed.
The devastation at Sierra-at-Tahoe worried ski resort communities, and many — such as nearby Heavenly’s VP of Operations Ricky Newberry — offered a helping hand.
“There was an immediate outreach and offering of support, whatever we could do to help,” said Newberry. “We did partner up and store some of their items that they were able to get here.”
Had the fire taken a different path, Heavenly — famous for its stunning Lake Tahoe views — could have suffered the same fate.
Ski resorts like theirs recognize that the climate is changing, and weather and natural disasters can be unpredictable.
So, learning from their neighbor’s misfortune, they’re making preparations and staying vigilant in their mission to offer winter recreation for generations to come.
“At the end of the day, we’re ideally in the fun business, where we’re sliding around on snow, and it does come with challenges and with some of those weather impacts,” said Newberry. “We’ve got to be cautious, we’ve got to be safe, we’ve got to be smart.”
But through everything, Sierra-at-Tahoe has turned its tragedy into triumph.
While the landscape of the West Bowl has changed dramatically with the absence of trees, the lessons they’ve learned are attracting attention from the ski resort industry in how to react to the whims of Mother Nature.
“This is the first time a resort’s been devastated by a fire like this, to this extreme,” said Hickman. “We had a group from the forest service here last week, toured them around. I think a lot of different resorts are looking at what we do and how we overcome this, because we won’t be the last, unfortunately.”
There will certainly be more extreme weather events and natural disasters, with situations that are unforeseen, but Sierra-at-Tahoe is an example of resiliency in how to fight for what they love, survive and thrive again.