‘It looked like a volcano erupting’
VAIL – Bryan Kohrmann saw the orange glow from the Vail fire station. That glow turned out to be flames from Vail Mountain, and one of the biggest eco-terrorist attacks in the United States. Those arson fires destroyed or heavily damaged several buildings, the biggest of which was the 33,000 square foot Two Elk restaurant.Kohrmann, who now works on the firefighting crew at the Eagle County Airport, was then working part-time for the Vail Fire Department. He was one of three firefighters on duty the morning of Oct. 18. The alarm came just after 4 a.m. Almost an hour later, the crew and one truck was at Vail Ski Patrol Headquarters.
It took about an eyeblink for the firefighters to realize they weren’t going to save much.”We were pretty calm,” Kohrmann said of the crew’s arrival at patrol headquarters. “We knew right away it was too big, so we made sure there were no people in it. Then we saw Two Elk on fire, too.”The several arson fires eventually brought a crew of nearly 100 firefighters up the winding, increasingly muddy road from Vail to the fire scene at nearly 11,000 feet elevation.”Every time you turned around it was like, ‘Hey, there’s a truck from Glenwood; there’s a truck from Basalt,” Kohrmann said.With that many firefighters from that many departments, the scene at the top of the mountain was chaotic. Remarkably, there was just one injury, when a firefighter was whacked on the knee by a heavy hose coupling.Besides the human injury, four fire trucks were damaged that day, but all were repaired.Adding to the chaos of the firefighters were the 70 or so Vail Resorts employees at the scene.”They were emotionally involved in it, so they were difficult to coordinate,” Vail Fire Chief John Gulick said.Gulick was asleep at his home near Eagle when the first alarm came in. Hustling up the valley, he saw the glow from Vail Mountain at Wolcott. “There was no wind, so there was just a column of black smoke coming up,” Gulick said.
‘Like a volcano’When he arrived, the fires were raging.”There was 500 gallons of diesel fuel on fire at the top of Chair Five,” Gulick said. “It looked like a volcano had erupted. At (patrol headquarters) there were oxygen bottles blowing up and propane tanks exploding.”At the scene, about the only thing firefighters could do was protect things that weren’t on fire yet. “There wasn’t a lot we could do,” Gulick said. “We had to shuttle water from Eagle’s Nest, down the Minturn Mile, then over to Two Elk.”The fires quickly claimed a tower used for Vail Resorts’ on-mountain radios. A team was quickly sent to defend a radio tower used by local police and fire departments. Other teams were told to keep the fire from spreading into the forest.Gulick was the last firefighter off the mountain, nearly 12 hours after the first alarm came in.’Like a personal assault’In Vail Village, locals remember the days after the fire as tense ones.”It was scary, we didn’t know what else was going to happen,” said Sandy Manning, now the manager of The Toy Store on Bridge Street. “We’d never had anything like that happen before. It was like the outside world had invaded.”Several residents were rocked by the fires.”People in Vail felt a deep sense that we were violated,” longtime resident and business owner Ron Riley said. “We really felt is was a personal attack.”John Kemmer, owner of The Toy Store, lives across the valley from Golden Peak. He remembers waking up that morning and seeing the flames leaping from the mountain.”I said to myself, ‘Oh, Vail Resorts is doing some burning before the ski season,'” he said. “A little later we heard what happened. I couldn’t believe something like that had happened.”After learning the radical group the Earth Liberation Front had taken responsibility for the fires, Kemmer and his friends thought, “How ridiculous to burn a timber lodge that they’ll have to cut more trees to rebuild.”Riley said others in Vail came together after the fires.”The community really rallied around it,” Riley added. “Some people didn’t recognize the sense of connection they had with the community until this.”Lessons learnedThe Two Elk fire drew firefighters, ambulance crews and police officers to the scene. None of those crews could talk to each other by radio.That changed after the fire. So did the amount of joint training those departments do.”It pulled us together,” Gulick said. “We realized we had to train together.”That training came in handy at the 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships, as well as a major fire at the Marriott in Vail a few years ago.And, while it’s taken more than seven years to name just one suspect in the fires, it was something both Gulick and Kohrmann thought could happen some time.”I’m surprised, but I also knew it was an open case,” Gulick said. “When the firefighting effort was over, A.J. Johnson, who was the sheriff then, did a huge investigation. There were 75 people involved.”Kohrmann, himself the son of a firefighter, wasn’t quite as surprised as his former boss.”Arson fires aren’t solved quickly,” he said. Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14624, or email@example.com.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado