Gone are thousands of trees in the West Bowl area of Sierra. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

It’s not the same. It never will be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not good or even better in some ways. And that vibe, it’s still there. An altered landscape hasn’t changed the soul of Sierra-at-Tahoe.

“I’ve learned to appreciate what’s here,” Adam Parris of Oakland said while taking a break from snowboarding at Sierra-at-Tahoe this season.

“You get out there and remember what life is all about,” he said gesturing to the slopes. To him, it’s all about being in the mountains riding. It doesn’t matter that it doesn’t look the same.

Eighty percent of the resort’s 2,000 acres were affected by the Caldor Fire. Every lift needed repairs—some because of heat, some had trees fall on them. Lift towers, haul ropes and terrain features had to be replaced.

The brick shop building with millions of dollars of equipment was reduced to ashes, while the wood structures remained intact.

West Bowl amenities survived the Caldor Fire even though the trees around it did not. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

The Caldor Fire started Aug. 14, 2021, near Grizzly Flats, which is about 30 miles from the ski resort. It blew through the resort on Aug. 29, forever changing the ski area.

“I’m amazed with what they have done,” Roger Hubbard of Meyers said while riding the Grandview lift in January. “I think most everybody misses the trees.”

Those trees. Those trees that are no longer there. Approximately 34,000 were removed after the fire. It used to look like a forest and now, well, it doesn’t. At least not at West Bowl. Instead of tree skiing it’s stump skiing.

Some say it’s more like bowl skiing in Colorado or even Europe, which West Bowl never was. Clipper and Dogwood are now wide-open powder runs.

What’s gone are the stashes of powder at West Bowl. It used to be easy to find them even days after a storm. This was all because thousands of trees hid those fluffy piles of white stuff.

“The first time I saw West Bowl it was like a moonscape. There wasn’t any tree skiing there,” Rebekah Richard of Roseville said.

She says the resort still has the same feel, and she’s more than happy it reopened.

For Lilia Prather, also of Roseville, Sierra still feels like home.

“I think it’s a different beauty. You still have trees, but some are sticks sticking up,” she said. “It’s still beautiful. It’s just different terrain.”

Two guys relaxing at the Solstice Plaza came up from San Francisco for the day to ride. They didn’t even know there had been a fire. A man from North Carolina visiting for the first time was unfazed by the terrain, saying he thought he saw signs of a fire but didn’t think much about it.

Ramon Belasqued of Santa Rosa knows what Sierra was like pre-Caldor. “It’s windier now that the trees are gone,” he said. But he’s not complaining. In the same breath he adds it’s easier to move around the slopes because of the lack of trees.

The top of Grandview looks as though there was never a fire. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Still adapting

John Rice, who has been the resort’s general manager since 1993, initially wasn’t sure Sierra would rise from the ashes.

“We are still facing challenges,” Rice admits.

It’s figuring out the wind, where snowdrifts form, even how the lifts are affected by the wind.

“Disasters take their own path. This fire got the shop and left the ugly buildings,” Rice says, still amazed by this reality.

The thought at the time was to put all the valuable equipment—including several new snowcats—snowmobiles, employee tools and other items all in that brick structure with the belief it could survive. It was as packed as it could be.

While Rice would not reveal the actual dollar figure in losses from that one building, he said it was in the multi-millions.

A new structure with new equipment has taken its place.

The other buildings had been protected with Thermo-Gel, a fire retardant that the resort’s insurance company had applied. Everything that was sprayed survived, including the tent-like covering at Solstice.

It took a team to bring the resort back to life.

El Dorado Resource Conservation District and the U.S. Forest Service are to be commended, according to Rice.

Rice went to Washington, D.C., to lobby for support; pointing out the recreation asset that Sierra is.

McP’s Taphouse and MacDuff’s Pub in South Lake Tahoe each had fundraisers for employees, some of whom lost thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment.

Mammoth, Palisades and Boreal ski resorts were singled out by Rice for coming through with people, equipment and other resources.

Now Rice is a resource for others in terms of how to deal with an approaching inferno. Last year he advised resorts in New Mexico and Arizona to put their equipment in the parking lot—on asphalt where fire is more apt to run its course.

A snowboarder goes down the now barren Powderhorn run. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Figuring it out

Employees, community members (on the South Shore and West Slope), season pass holders, day trippers, most anyone with a connection to the resort wanted it to reopen. Rice was buoyed by their enthusiasm.

The rally cry became “it just might be better.”

Not just skiers wanted to come back—so did employees. Last fall six people reached the 30-year mark at Sierra.

While Rice recognizes he is at the tail end of his career, he also knows he was the right person to be at the helm for the recovery. He also admits he and others have gone through all the stages of grief, adding they went from being victims to being victors.

Then everyone involved in Sierra’s rebirth embraced every “re” word—repurpose, reimagine, re-create, reassemble, recalculate. Eventually, they could rejoice.

“You can change the landscape, but you still have the vibe,” Rice said while sitting inside the Solstice Eatery.

He refused to let those flames that reportedly reached 3,000 degrees when they ripped through West Bowl have the final say.

Sierra-at-Tahoe is surrounded by evidence of the 2021 Caldor Fire. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Sierra opened for two days in March 2022 to recognize the resort’s 75th anniversary. Not all the terrain was open last year; even on days when Mother Nature cooperated.

Resilient is one of many words to describe Sierra and the people who brought it back to life. Last fall a swarm of people descended on Sierra to plant 5,000 trees. This will become an annual event at least for a few years; after all not every seedling survives.

While the 200-foot pines will never grace these slopes in any of our lifetimes, life will eventually sprout from the soil.

The fire went from West Bowl south to the lower east side, where areas such as lower Jack’s Bowl and Preacher’s Passion were charred.

Still, there are plenty of places where it’s easy to forget there was a fire. Near the top of Grandview it’s like nothing happened; tall conifers dot the landscape, with snow filling the boughs. Other parts of the resort are like this as well.

Everyone knows the resort is different. No one is apologizing for it. Instead they are actually promoting Sierra as being a different resort.

“It’s not just a business, it’s a treasure,” Rice said of Sierra.

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the Tahoe Mountain News.

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