Arson on the mountain: Vail’s 1998 arson fires at Two Elk were country’s worst eco-terrorist attack
What happened that night?
Federal investigators and prosecutors put this timeline together as part of the sentencing documents for the arsonists who torched Two Elk restaurant and other buildings atop Vail Mountain 20 years ago, Monday, Oct. 19, 1998.
Chelsea D. Gerlach, William C. Rodgers, Stanislas Meyerhoff, Rebecca Rubin, Jacob Ferguson, Josephine Sunshine Overaker and Kevin Tubbs were part of a group calling itself The Family. They were associated with the Earth Liberation Front, an eco-sabotage group. The FBI has characterized ELF as the United States’ “top domestic terrorism threat.”
• Protesters had been demonstrating in and around Vail all summer against Category III, an 885-acre Vail Mountain expansion that would become known as Blue Sky Basin. The protesters claimed the acreage was critical lynx habitat. The area had been part of Vail Mountain’s U.S. Forest Service permit since founder Pete Seibert obtained it.
Many of those protesters rode into the area from the Front Range. Others stayed in teepees. Those camping migrated away when the weather turned cold, and the commuters stopped showing up.
Before they left, one woman chained herself to the top of a tree, a common practice among demonstrators at the time who were trying to keep loggers from cutting trees. It took crews 12 hours to get her down. Another man climbed into an overturned Audi with a hole cut in the roof and cemented himself inside.
• In October 1998, Gerlach, Rodgers, Meyerhoff and Rubin built timers for the planned firebombing and brought gasoline and diesel fuel to Vail Mountain in Gerlach’s truck.
They put the fuel containers in white plastic trash bags to hide them in the snow atop Vail Mountain.
• Gerlach, Rodgers, Meyerhoff and Rubin then met Ferguson, Overaker and Tubbs, who were supposed to help them with the arson. They talked about “difficulties involved in the arson” and decided to postpone the arson.
• Meyerhoff, Rubin, Ferguson, Tubbs and Overaker returned to Oregon.
• Driving Rodgers’ truck, Gerlach dropped off Rodgers at Vail Mountain near where the fuel was hidden. Rodgers spent several days on the mountain, hiking around the area where the fuel was hidden. Gerlach stayed about an hour away, parked on a logging road, for two days.
• Rodgers and Gerlach met again, and they went to a store “some distance away from Vail,” where Rodgers bought barbecue lighter sticks, sponges and hand-held flares.
Gerlach dropped Rodgers off at Vail Mountain after night fell on Oct. 18. Rodgers placed gas cans next to a building on Vail Mountain.
• During the early-morning hours of Oct. 19, 1998, Rodgers ran along the ridge of Vail Mountain, lighting gas cans on the outsides of Two Elk restaurant, Ski Patrol Headquarters and the lift house at the top of Chair 5.
He ran along the ridge to each gas can, lighting them. He told Gerlach that he looked back and saw the fire start. He opened the door to one building and saw two hunters sleeping there. He closed the door and didn’t set fire to that building.
• Rodgers ran down a trail and then a bike path that led to a park. Gerlach met him there at 7 or 8 a.m. Rodgers hurt his ankle on the way down.
• Gerlach and Rodgers drove to Denver, where they sent an email from a public library in which ELF claimed responsibility for the arsons “on behalf of the lynx.” The email cited Vail’s “Category III” expansion onto Battle Mountain, which later became known as Blue Sky Basin.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series recalling the eco-terrorist attack 20 years ago at the top of Vail Mountain. In the Saturday, Oct. 20, Vail Daily: The community fights back. Read the second part here.
VAIL — Firefighters knew it was arson before they were on the scene.
Big fires in the dark create a foreboding glow. In the cold, clear pre-dawn hours of Monday, Oct. 19, 1998, three buildings and four chairlifts atop Vail Mountain were engulfed in arson fires set by a group of eco-terrorists called The Family that was associated with the Earth Liberation Front.
Almost before the smoke cleared, the FBI was calling it the “the worst act of eco-terrorism in the United States.”
Seven members of The Family were involved; six eventually went to prison. The FBI says the seventh might be holed up in Spain and remains on the agency’s Most Wanted list.
All hands on deck
Craig Davis became a full-time crew member with the Vail Fire Department in 1991. He and his wife lived in Eagle, and Oct. 19, 1998, was supposed to be his day off.
He had gotten up early to go elk hunting and was outside with his pickup idling when his wife ran out of the house into the dark, shouting, “Your pager’s going off!”
No cellphones in those days. People carried pagers.
He jumped in his truck and hot-footed upvalley, still dressed in his hunting gear.
“As soon as I got through Wolcott, I could see the glows of fire on top of Vail Mountain,” Davis said.
He arrived in Vail and found Vail Assistant Fire Chief John Gulick and others at a rapidly gathering and energized command center. The chief was out of town, so it fell to Gulick to coordinate it all.
Gulick started getting updates from Vail Mountain security about the fires. Bob Egizi, director of Vail Mountain public safety, and some of his employees watched their workplace burn.
Davis jumped in an Eagle County Sheriff’s Office vehicle and, now dressed in his fire gear, sped through the dark to the top of the mountain with a deputy.
“I was already thinking this was an arson. Multiple fires were burning structures and nothing else around it,” Davis said. “Any fire in the dark stands out. I could see a couple things glowing, and I knew something wasn’t right. Several things glowing at once is not normal.”
Containment was key
They quickly decided that containment would be their strategy. Two Elk restaurant and the other burning buildings were too far gone to save. Help could not arrive in time, Davis said.
They would contain the fires to the buildings and save the land around them.
“There was enough snow to keep it from becoming a bigger disaster,” Davis said.
Moment later, a truck arrived at the top carrying four more Vail firefighters, including Bryan Kohrmann, now a captain with the Eagle County airport fire department.
Digital cameras were still new technology in 1998, and Davis anxiously asked if they had one in the truck. They did. They grabbed their camera and started taking pictures of footprints in the snow, moving quickly because the intense heat was melting the snow and those tracks would soon be gone.
“That was the only evidence we had,” Davis said.
They also took pictures of the fires, including the iconic shot of Two Elk restaurant completely engulfed in flames. Time/Life magazines published it. So did hundreds of other media outlets.
Two sleeping survivors
As they quickly scoured the area looking for clues and suspects, they found two hunters in a heated restroom, where hunters were sometimes known to sleep.
Gulick told Davis to head up the mountain and radio back with information.
While those hunters’ names were never released, this bit of information was:
One of the arsonists, William C. Rodgers, was setting the fires and opened the door to a free-standing restroom near Two Elk. Rodgers saw the hunters sleeping, federal prosecutors later said, and closed the restroom door, leaving the hunters asleep. Firefighters soon arrived, woke the hunters and pulled them out of there.
“It was bad, but it would have been much worse if those hunters had died,” Davis said.
Slick trip to the top
It took 55 minutes for most trucks to reach the top of Vail Mountain, 11,570 feet above sea level, sliding over an access road covered with snow and ice, Gulick recalled. Winter had started for what turned out to be a good snow year.
A water truck had to be pushed part way up with a SnoCat. Others bent fenders and doors when they slid, but they all made it.
When the radio calls started coming back down the mountain, they opened with “holy cow,” and other terms, Gulick said.
They called for a helicopter to drop water on the fires, but because of the altitude and thin air, the chopper couldn’t carry the water’s weight.
A sheriff’s deputy commandeered the helicopter and some infrared goggles and flew off to look for the arsonists.
Miraculously, the only injury was a student firefighter. A hose coupling blew off and hit him in the knee. He was fine, he protested, and wanted to stay, as paramedics loaded him into an ambulance to haul him down. And he really was fine, Gulick said.
Somewhere in someone’s personal archives is a photo of all the firefighters mustered up there after the fire. Two Elk restaurant is smoldering in the background. Off to the side of the firefighters is a singed sign on the restaurant deck that ironically reads, “Bar-B-Que,” advertising one of Two Elk’s culinary offerings.
Eco-terrorists claim credit
The fires were still smoldering when local, state and federal investigators arrived just past dawn. They quickly concluded what Davis and other firefighters had surmised: The fires were arson. The arsonists had escaped.
Later that morning, Rodgers and Chelsea Gerlach, two members of the Earth Liberation Front, sent a communiqué from a Denver library claiming responsibility. They said they were acting against the ski company’s planned Blue Sky Basin expansion because it would destroy lynx habitat.
Before mutual aid was mutual
It may seem difficult to fathom now, but two decades ago, cellphones were the size of a brick and about as useful. Most emergency agencies could barely talk to one another on radios.
“It was like dialing an operator on a rotary phone and hoping someone would answer,” Gulick said.
Someone did. More than 70 firefighters from around the region responded to Gulick’s all-hands-on-deck, one of the area’s first regional responses.
Soon the first fire engine arrived, then another and another, rolling in from Vail, Copper Mountain, Carbondale, Basalt, Glenwood Springs, Eagle, Avon and Gypsum.
That fire and the communications issues they worked through helped create communications systems and mutual-aid agreements that are now routine, Gulick said.
“It forced people to work together, and we began to see how much better that was,” Gulick said. “It was a significant day in our history.”
Not long afterward, Gulick traveled to Baltimore for an expo about domestic terrorism and how to help agencies coordinate their responses.
As for Davis, he returned to college to complete his bachelor’s degree and soon returned to the Vail Fire Department. Ironically, one of the cases he and his college classmates studied was that Vail Mountain fire.
The professor wondered if anyone had firsthand knowledge.
Yes, Davis responded, he did.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.