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Vail Fire Called Terrorism

Investigators were suspicious from the start about the fires high atop the Vail Mountain Ski Resort, reports CBS News Correspondent Bob McNamara reports. A series of separate blazes that destroyed a restaurant, a ski patrol headquarters, and damaged four chair lifts looked more like arson than an accident, investigators say.

"We're treating it as though it's an investigation -- again, not ruling anything out so that we can come to a conclusion," says Vail fireman Jeff Atencio.

According to the Associated Press, an environmental group claimed responsibility for the series of fires that caused $12 million in damages to facilities at the nation's busiest ski resort.

Investigators were looking into the credibility of the claim Wednesday night.

Colorado Gov. Roy Romer called the fires an "act of terrorism," since they came at a time when Vail was beginning a major land expansion, cutting more trees, and carving more ski runs -- something environmentalists had opposed.

"I know that mountain quite well, and it's inconceivable some natural occurrence would cause simultaneous fires on that ridge," Romer said at a news conference in Denver, 100 miles to the east of Vail.

State and federal agents were investigating the fires, which burned independent of each other. Two of the main buildings destroyed were more than a mile apart.

Today Vail is the poster town for Colorado's $4-billion-a-year ski industry. But as the resorts expand their boundaries into more national forest land each year, behind the powder show and pretty pictures, a powerful industry and environmental activists have been on a collision course over resort development.

"It radically angered some lunatic segment of society possibly and that's why unfortunately this incident may have occurred," says environmentalist Jeff Berman.

The fires did more than $12 million worth of damage, and the resort suffered a setback. Still, Vail officials say they will open for the ski season in just three weeks.

The expansion work resumed Tuesday. Several workers used chain saws to clearcut trees, erected fencing and began building a footbridge over a small creek.

Firefighters, sometimes wading through thick mud or six inches of snow, continued work on smoldering fires.

Reported By Bob McNamara.
©1998 CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. AP contributed to this report

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