Facing a Wildfire, Ski Santa Fe Readies Its Snow Guns

Facing another enormous wildfire season in the western U.S., ski resorts are getting creative with their fire safety. Ski Santa Fe has been operating on a 24-hour watch for the past two weeks buttressing themselves against the Medio Fire by prepping their snow guns. Amid preparing operations for COVID protocols and arming their snow guns to douse critical infrastructure, the leadup to ski season is… hectic.

The fire started on August 17 after a lightning strike in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest, close to the forest boundary with Nambe Pueblo and about 1.5 miles from the village of Rio en Medio. As the fire spread, it crept closer to Ski Santa Fe, the local ski area 15 miles northeast of Santa Fe proper.

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According to Inciweb, the government’s incident information system, fire behavior has ranged from moderate to extreme, driven by terrain—specifically the area’s steep canyons—and winds. Due to the remote location of the fire and the rugged terrain, the firefighting strategy will be a combination of direct and indirect perimeter control and point protection.

But firefighters aren’t the only people who can direct thousands of gallons of water. Ski Santa Fe has begun priming its snow guns, which can pump over 1,000 gallons per minute, according to mountain manager Josh Faber.

Faber got a call from the Forest Service on August 17 asking if the resort could see any smoke. At that time they could see a small plume, but Faber took the opportunity to go over the resort’s fire plan with his staff. Not an hour later, the sky filled with smoke.

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“I had never seen anything like it, to be honest,” Faber said. “So instantly we went from, ‘Hey, let’s just look at our plan and make sure everyone’s on the same page’ to implementing and moving snowguns and flushing water lines and getting hoses out and the whole shebang.”

“I am optimistic that the plans in place from the Forest Service will minimize risk to the ski area, but we began taking extra precautions of our own as soon as we became aware of the fire,” Faber says. “This past week we put all of our snow guns around the ski area to protect buildings, lifts, and other critical infrastructure.”

Ski Santa Fe is no stranger to wildfires. In 2011, the Pacheco fire, started by a campfire, ravaged over 10,000 acres and came within a hair of the resort. As snowmaking technology improved over the years, the resort’s fire plan has gotten better equipped to deal with the growing threat.

Faber says the resort used the Medio fire as a kind of drill. They’re streamlining their systems for flushing hose lines, and they’re not able to operate at almost 100 percent on generated power—they can run the snow guns even when the power company shuts off the resort’s grid access during a crisis.

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The fire, which is now 55 percent contained, has spread to over 3,438 acres so far. But Faber is optimistic that the threat is ebbing.

“Luckily we’ve been getting some rain and favorable winds lately. So I feel confident that we’re out of the danger zone at this point. We’re still staying up 24 hours a day, keeping someone up there at night just in case something crazy happens, but we’re still ready to turn on the pump to sell guns and do what we have to do.”

Ski Santa Fe intends to open on Thanksgiving weekend. The resort is developing a COVID best-practices plan along with the governor’s office in conjunction with New Mexico’s other ski resorts.

This article originally appeared on Powder.com and was republished with permission.