Powder Burn: Arson, Money, and Mystery on Vail Mountain
Reviewed by Steve Mann


By: Daniel Glick
Published by: Public Affairs,
Paperback, 288 pages

Buy it.

Publication date: January 19, 2001
Price: $14.40
ISBN: 1586480030
Category: Investigative


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 ELF—claimed responsibility. Open and shut case, right?

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

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