Powder Burn: Arson, Money, and Mystery on Vail Mountain
Reviewed by Steve Mann
By: Daniel Glick
Published by: Public Affairs,
Paperback, 288 pages
Publication date: January 19, 2001
Every good fictional mystery has all the obligatory ingredients: protagonist, villain, plot, and
supporting cast of rich characters-some sinister, some laudatory-and an ending that ties all
the clues together. Powder Burn, a nonfiction mystery, supplies all the key ingredients but one:
an ending with comfortable closure.
Powder Burn is the story of the October 1998 fires that burned $12 million dollars worth
of restaurants, lodges, ski lifts and other buildings at Vail, Colorado. At first glance the fires
seem to incriminate a single obvious villain (eco-terrorists), but upon detailed inspection the
list of credible suspects mushrooms into a list of who's who on Vail Mountain. Powder Burn
starts as a story of a fire then mushrooms to a far broader scope; it details the confrontation
of the New West: commercialization versus conservation; economic development versus
environment; democracy versus anarchy.
Glick's coverage begins the day of the fires. In the early morning of October 19th, hunters
camped near the Ski Patrol Headquarters at 11,250 feet, near the tops of Lifts 4 and 5, preparing
for the elk hunt that day. In the early morning hours the Patrol Headquarters, the Two Elk Lodge,
several lift buildings, and other Vail Resorts structures blazed with strategically lit arson fires.
The precision hit resembled a special-forces raid more than haphazard fires ignited by inexperienced
but zealous environmentalists. Within days an email-delivered from untrackable email servers and
ostensibly from the shadowy Earth Liberation Front, or ELFclaimed responsibility. Open and shut
Not even close. The FBI, ATF, state and local police agencies converged on Vail,
and began an intense investigation, which continued as a priority until the tragedy in
Littleton. Three years later the case remains unsolved: insufficient evidence exists
to pin an arson charge on any person or group. Glick's probing unearthed a list of
suspects that includes local skiers, disgruntled employees, transient workers, local
business people, politicians, resort management, and, of course, a series of
environmentalists and eco-groups.
Along the way Glick paints a engaging picture of the history of Vail, from its
beginning as a dream of local skiers turned small businessmen, to a Wall-Street
conglomerate with Wall Street policies perceived as cut-throat by locals and
threatening to Colorado's other ski destinations.
In the end Powder Burn exposes the raw nerves of political, economic, recreational,
and environmental forces playing out over the entire West. The blazes on Vail Mountain
symbolize the smoldering conflict between industrial tourism and land preservation.
Powder Burn will appeal to anyone who enjoys a good whodunit (as long as you can
withstand the lack of closure); to those interested in the history, politics, sociology or
business of Vail and the Colorado Ski Industry; and to students of the New West and
the burning confrontation that awaits the continued growth of the region.
Steve Mann is a contributing editor at GearReview.com