Federal agents are investigating a series of fires atop Vail Mountain that caused some $12 million in damage, just days after work began on a major resort expansion opposed by environmentalists.
"It really is a terrorist sort of act, if you want to go down that path," said town Councilwoman Sybill Navas. "What bothers me the most is that someone thinks they can take this type of action to solve anything."
Vail Associates President Andy Daly refused to speculate about the cause of the fires that began before dawn Monday. He said that the timber cutting that began Friday would resume today.
Agents from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the FBI have arrived in this ski resort town about 100 miles west of Denver to investigate.
The fires destroyed the luxurious 550-seat Two Elk restaurant, the Ski Patrol headquarters, and a picnic spot known as Camp One, all at or above the 11,000-foot level on the mountain.
The fires also damaged four chairlifts, effectively cutting off access to what will be the 885-acre expansion area.
Paul Witt, Vail spokesman, said this morning that the resort wouldn't be able to replace the structures in time for this season, but "we have some plans to get some temporary services in so there will be some food services available." A facility also will be set up for the Ski Patrol.
He also said the resort plans to open on schedule, Nov. 6.
Authorities said the fires could have been set by a disgruntled former employee, a skier irate over Vail's $61 peak season lift tickets, or someone trying to make a political statement before the World Alpine Ski Championships, scheduled to begin in late January.
The Eagle County Sheriff's Office said it was too early to guess at a cause. But Ed Nesselroad of the U.S. Forest Service's regional office said authorities suspect arson.
"The fires are 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."
Environmentalists oppose the expansion because they say it will make the area uninhabitable for endangered lynx, which wildlife groups had hoped to reintroduce to the area. The groups, which lost a court fight to stop the expansion, denied any involvement in the fires.
"Anyone who connects these two things now is guilty of wild speculation," said Ted Zukoski, a lawyer representing seven environmental groups.
Vail, which led the nation with about 1.6 million skier days last season, opens Nov. 6. The ski industry pumped more than $4.1 billion into the Colorado economy last season, said Barbara Jennings of Colorado Ski Country USA, a nonprofit trade association.
Written by Michael Lovell
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