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Security Increased After Vail Fires

October 23, 1998

VAIL, Colo. (AP) _ The nation’s largest ski resort has beefed up security following a series of arson fires atop Vail Mountain, vowing to protect skiers at the jet-set playground.

Investigators on Thursday officially blamed arsonists for the fires that destroyed three major buildings and portions of four chairlifts earlier this week. Damage was estimated at $12 million.

Fire accelerants were found on the mountain, where chemists and officers using specially trained dogs had been looking for clues. Also found were empty plastic jugs that might have contained accelerants.

``We’ve eliminated any and all accidental causes. We are classifying it as incendiary,″ said Tommy Wittman, regional director for the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms.

The Earth Liberation Front, a shadowy environmental group, claimed responsibility for the fires and threatened more action if Vail moves forward with expansion plans into roadless areas.

Vail officials said they were taking precautions to protect skiers at their resort, declining to elaborate.

``We will take them seriously so our guests do not have to worry,″ said Adam Aron, Vail Resorts chief executive officer.

Other Colorado resorts were alert.

``We are concerned. We are also ready,″ said Sheriff Joe Morales of Summit County, adjacent to Vail’s Eagle County and home to ski areas owned by Vail Resorts. ``There is a heightened level of security and awareness.″

Vail officials fear that the gondolas and chairlifts that have carried Princess Diana, former President Ford and the Gore family could be empty if skiers are scared off by threats of sabotage.

Vail is hoping for a record number of skiers this season. The weather phenomenon La Nina is likely to bring above-average snow and Vail is the host of the prestigious World Alpine Ski Championships in February.

``I invested a lot of money in gear for the World Championships and if no one shows up I guess I bought a loss leader. I may not be able to buy as many Christmas presents for my kids this year,″ said Steve Sheridan, owner of Performance Sports, a nearby sporting goods store.

Resort officials said the fires should have only a minor effect on the resort’s operations. Vail Associates President Andy Daly said 19 of the resort’s 20 restaurants will be open, and 30 of 31 lifts will be ready by the Nov. 6 opening date.

The area affected by the fires lies above Vail’s famous Back Bowls, one of the resort’s prime attractions. The area also leads to 885 acres of terrain Vail wants to open.

Daly said that except for the loss of the Two Elks restaurant, a favorite spot for skiers returning from Siberia and China bowls, ``no one will be able to tell the difference.″

Police Chief Greg Morrison said he and some of his staff had recently completed FBI anti-terrorist training in preparation for the alpine championships. The training was ordered as a standard precaution and not in response to the arson, he said.

Morrison said law enforcement agencies are prepared for serious problems and insist the slopes are safe.

``I will be the first one on the mountain,″ he said. ``You can follow me.″

Though Vail and Colorado survived a boycott launched by gays in 1994 to protest the passage of a state constitutional amendment denying gays special protection from discrimination, the fear of terrorist acts brought a new and potentially dangerous problem.

``Every one of us has a sort of sick feeling in our stomach,″ said Ski Magazine Editor Andy Bigford. But he said Vail has the size and experience to bounce back.

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