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The night Vail Mountain was set ablaze in a historic act of ecoterrorism, 25 years later

It was 25 years ago on this day that Coloradans awoke to the big news unfolding atop Vail Mountain in what would become the "worst act of eco-terrorism ever in the United States."
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Posted at 6:15 PM, Oct 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-19 20:15:38-04

VAIL, Colo. — It was 25 years ago on Oct. 19 that Coloradans awoke to the big news unfolding atop Vail Mountain.

Not an October snowstorm dropping a foot of snow but something much darker pierced that cold, dark October night.

An inferno during the overnight hours consumed several buildings, including the iconic Two Elks Restaurant and several ski lifts, in a brazen act of ecotage the country had never seen.

While Coloradans slept, a small, dedicated community of first responders worked through the night, battling not only the numerous fires, but icy and snowy treacherous conditions to do whatever it took to save other properties on Vail Mountain.

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'The sight of it ... just made you mad'

To help tell the story of that surreal night in the valley, we spoke with longtime Vail Daily Reporter Randy Wyrick, who reported from the scene.

“It’s starting to feel like ancient history for a lot of people," he said. "Most people don’t know this happened at all."

Wyrick, who left the paper in 2020 and now lives out of state, for decades covered just about every big story you can think of in Vail.

All these years later, Wyrick still vividly remembers that long trek through the snow, making the journey thousands of feet up the mountain to report from the scene.

“You try to get up on the mountain and they don't want you up on the mountain, so you'll bushwhack up there,” Wyrick remembers. “Because it's national forest and they can't really keep you out. There are too many ways to get up there. I will tell you with some experience, that's a hike.”

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An original map from Denver7 News in 1998.

Along with the relentless efforts of fire crews, including those from the Vail Fire Department, the snow that blanketed the area worked as containment to keep the fire from spreading to other structures.

"You just couldn't believe it until you got close enough to smell the smoke. And it was still smoldering by the time we got up there," Wyrick said. "And the sight of it. It just made you mad."

No one was directly hurt as a result of the fires, but one intern firefighter suffered a knee injury during the response. Two hunters who had been sleeping inside a heated bathroom on the top of the mountain escaped injury.

'No question' about the cause

As the scale of the destruction became apparent with daylight, it didn’t take long for the second gut punch to hit – It was pretty apparent from the beginning this was no accident.

"There was no question at all [...] whether or not it was arson," said Wyrick’s longtime colleague at Vail Daily, Scott Miller. Miller is still at the paper but was working for the weekly Eagle Enterprise back in 1998.

"It made people mad. And they decided, well, no, we're not going to take this."

The fire was set in the early morning hours of Monday, Oct. 19. By Wednesday, two days after the fire was extinguished, investigators confirmed the blaze was intentionally set. On Friday of that week, an environmentalist group took responsibility for the fire.

The top of Vail Mountain – one the state’s most beautiful places – would become known as ground zero of the “worst act of eco-terrorism ever in the United States,” as the FBI later put it.

The motive

Vail's ski resort had been open for more than a quarter-century and was about a month away from opening for the winter 1998-99 season.

“It was a fairly heavy time in the history of Vail in that things were expanding, things were growing and Blue Sky Basin was about to come online,” said Wyrick.

Blue Sky Basin, of course, is one of Vail's renowned back bowls and still welcomes skiers and riders for some of the mountain's best snow in the winter time.

Twenty-five years ago, though, the expansion of the ski resort into that terrain was the subject of protests. Some believed the area that is now Blue Sky Basin was important habitat for Canadian lynx – a species wildlife officials told Denver7 at the time hadn't been seen since the early 1970s but were set to be reintroduced. Those officials were also quoted on Denver7's airwaves saying Vail's back bowls were not considered a prime habitat for lynx.

Still, protests brewed throughout the summer.

“They bring these protesters in from the Front Range, bunch of granola crunchy types, and they would stand around the top of Vail Village or they go up on the mountain and then they chant or whatever,” said Wyrick. “One of them chained herself into the top of a tree and took 12 hours to get her down."

"People do these things. So we were sort of amused and bemused by these people.”

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But those tame forms of protest escalated, thanks to the more radical Earth Liberation Front. It was a group of seven ELF members who set fire to the mountain in the overnight hours of Oct. 19, 1998.

The group, who labeled themselves "The Family," had brought accelerants in buckets and hid them around buildings – including the Two Elks Restaurant – in white trash bags, so they would blend into the snow. Wyrick had reported that one of the arsonists took a typical fire starter you’d use to light a charcoal grill and ignited the barrels.

“This herd of halfwits who burned all this stuff down, they were protesting Lynx habitat and the destruction thereof," Wyrick said. "Well, you're not destroying any lynx habitat. As a matter of fact, the Division of Wildlife had been releasing lynx into the area as all this was going on. The Lynx weren't gone. You didn't destroy the lynx habitat. But you caused $12 million worth of damage with your arson, which up to then was the largest arson attack and [eco]terrorist attack on U.S. soil at that time.”

The Vail Daily reported later that day, two of the arsonists went to Denver and sent an email from a public library claiming responsibility for the fires. Eventually, the FBI would track down six of the seven who served jail time. A seventh suspect from ‘The Family’ apparently fled to Europe and was never captured.

The aftermath: From 'shock' to 'resolve'

Whatever the Earth Liberation Front had hoped they’d accomplish, in the end it just fueled the reserves of folks in Vail. Miller recalled what this story meant to the people in town.

"I think there was that initial wave of, 'Holy cow,' you know, that sort of [caused] shock and a little bit of fear. And then, given that it's Vail, that was replaced really quite quickly by resolve,” said Miller. “It made people mad. And they decided, well, ‘no, we're not going to take this."

**FILE** The remains of Vail Mountain's Two Elks restaurant smolder Oct. 20, 1998 after a fire the day before destroyed the mountain-top facility. Four environmental extremists pleaded guilty to arson and conspiracy Thursday, Nov. 9, 2006, for their part in a five-year wave of firebombings that caused $30 million (23.4 million) in damage, including the damage done to this facility, shown here. (AP Photo/Jack Affleck)

Aside from the restaurant being knocked out for a season, Wyrick recalls skiing past and smiling as Two Elk was rebuilt into a much larger facility and Miller said the Blue Sky Basin expansion continued on as planned, which eventually opened in the year 2000.

“And it was a remarkable example of people working together. Most of us, we care about each other, generally speaking all the time anyway. But sometimes it takes real trouble to bring it out of us. And this was one of those times,” Wyrick smiled. “This was us. They attacked us. And we weren't having it.”

The night Vail Mountain was set ablaze in a historic act of ecoterrorism in 1998