Rainy Parades & Other Tales of Manmade Science
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So, Sun Valley went to the snow guns full-time, this time with immediate and measurable results. And while the process is different, the chemistry is still the same. In this case, compressed air and water, from nearby surface waters and from the Valley’s reservoir of underground wells, are brought, in separate lines, to each snow gun on each ski run. Once the water and air arrive, they are mixed in each gun’s internal chamber, where the water molecules are super-cooled before they are shot from the gun’s barrels down onto the mountainscape.
In this way, the Sun Valley Company augments the winter’s natural snowfall by spraying Baldy with manmade snow. Stearns says the guns are usually fired up just prior to Halloween to create a snow base from “production snow” before the winter settles in which, as everyone in the mountains knows, can be anytime (remember when snow fell on the Valley’s Fourth of July parade?). At first, the snow is made at night, but activities are ramped up to 24-hour-a-day operations just before the winter holidays.
“The system will run as often as possible throughout the time period of November and December in order to be ready with as much terrain as possible for the Christmas holiday,” Stearns says. “At that time, the quality of the snow created is improved in order to enhance the product surface to a drier snow.”
The guns will then run throughout the season, when necessary, Stearns says, such as when warm spells or even rain are forecast. This, he says, helps keep the runs free from “thin spots,” and thus, skiers safe to enjoy the mountain.
When the ski season does end, Stearns says the water used in the snowmaking process eventually melts and returns safely to an underground system from which they were drawn, to be drawn again in another six months for the start of the next winter season.
But just when it seems nature and manmade technology were, if not in perfect harmony, at least in agreement, a different kind of storm comes to play a different kind of role.
All it took was one storm cloud to shoot, with the right barometric conditions, one lightning bolt, followed by the applause of a few grumbling thunderclaps and—voilá—a forest fire is born.
Another Parade upon which it Rained
Those wandering the streets of downtown Ketchum the evening of August 19, 2007, knew something was in the air, because there was: namely, the smell of trees burning. But they wouldn’t know until the next day just how close it was. A few days after that, what was soon named the Castle Rock Fire began moving, slowly at first, and then very quickly, toward downtown Ketchum and Bald Mountain. Over the next three weeks, thousands of people were evacuated from their homes as firefighters from across the country fought back the fire. But just when it seemed everything was very nearly under control, off went the indecisive wind in another direction, with the fire fast following it.
At times, Bald Mountain was seemingly surrounded by the flames, and at one point, the fire crept up the south side of the mountain, threatening the resort’s infrastructure of ski runs.
But, in a way, the Sun Valley Company was able to come to its own rescue. With the infrastructure for the snow guns already in place, all the company needed to do was start them up a couple of months early.
Stearns says the company and the firefighters pumped water up the mountain, where it was collected and used for “dip stations” from where helicopters would load up with water, which was in turn dumped across the terrain. Water was also pumped out to assist in setting back-burn lines to stop the fire from advancing up or down certain parts of the mountain. Finally, the guns were used in the way they were intended: without the compressed air, Stearns says, water was “broadcast” from them, which helped saturate the mountainside.
The mere presence of readily available water helped change the conditions, too, he says. “It saturated some of the fuel, which in turn created a bunch of humidity,” Sterns says. “It was a good tool,” since fires tend to slow under humid conditions.
At the end of it all, more than 48,500 acres of forest and land surrounding the Valley community burned up, and, once more, another parade was rained on, so to speak (the city of Ketchum’s Wagon Days festival was cancelled). But no homes were lost and, for the most part, everyone suffered only from the symptoms of a lackadaisical torpor, a languid state of being they were able to shake off once the first rains fell.
Within a couple of months, Sun Valley was back to work making snow to open up the mountain for the 2007-2008 winter season, their 72nd, making enough to stretch the ski season all the way into late-April, a boon not only to the company, but to the local retailers and ski bum-lifers who round out the community.
All without sacrificing one virgin.
Above Photograph: Ben Flandro
Chad Walsh is a freelance writer living in Portland.