Firefighters were called in from throughout Eagle County to battle the blaze. They were hampered by snow, rugged terrain, and a lack of water as they struggled to put out the flames.
The origin of the fire, which broke at about 4 a.m., had not yet been determined, according to Paul Witt, a Vail Resorts spokesman.
But Ed Nesselroad, from the U.S. Forest Service's regional office, said the cause "is suspected arson."
"The fire spread along a mile of mountaintop in a number of specific locations and there was no lightning last night," he said. "If you can rule out natural causes you look pretty quickly to human."
Vail topped the country with almost 1.6 million skiing days during the 1997-98 season. Overall, the ski industry pumped more than $4.1 billion into the Colorado economy, according to figures from the 1996-97 season, said Barbara Jennings, director of communications for Colorado Ski Country USA, a nonprofit trade association.
Today, the patrol headquarters building, located at the top of Vail Mountain, and the Camp 1 skier day shelter, located at the top of the China Bowl ski area, were destroyed by the fire, the ski resort reported.
The Two Elk Restaurant, also located at the top of China Bowl, was heavily damaged.
Vail Fire Department spokesman Jeff Atencio said the fire burned at least three or four acres. Firefighters were having trouble combating the flames, in part because of a lack of water and rugged terrain, he said.
Chris Buckman, assistant area coordinator for U.S. Forest Service, said access was also being limited by snow.
The Vail Valley Medical Center reported no casualties linked to the fire.
Vail last month cleared a key hurdle in its bid to become even larger when a federal judge dismissed a suit by environmentalists who claimed the resort's planned 4,100-acre expansion could harm the lynx.
Six environmental groups claimed in June that the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land that would be used for the expansion, had not considered the project's impact on wildlife.
But U.S. District Court Judge Edward W. Nottingham said in September the issue had been covered extensively in the Forest Service's environmental impact statements. Vail has agreed to take steps to preserve lynx habitat during the expansion.
The lynx hasn't been seen in the region since 1973, but environmentalists believe the area would be the best place to reintroduce the animal. The lynx has been proposed for the federal threatened species list.
Today, environmentalists immediately denounced the suspected arson.
"My clients would deplore any illegal activities that result in destruction of any facilities on public land," said Ted Zukoski of the Land and Water Fund, a Boulder-base public interest law firm that represented the groups challenging the expansion. "Arson is a serious offense and there is no way my clients would support any of that kind of activity. It's deplorable."
Vail is scheduled to hold the World Alpine Ski Championships from Jan. 30 to Feb. 14. The 1999 event will mark only the third time since the creation of the event in 1931 that the United States has played host to the international competitions.
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed