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Mountain News: Towns speak the same language



Mountain towns of the West, those with ski runs in the background, speak more or less the same language. And sometimes they have numbers that echo. Here are some statistics I gleaned during the last year that may resonate in your resort valley.

Living on fire's edge: 42%

That's the percentage of homes in Vail that are at high risk of wildfire, according to a new map created by fire chief Mark Miller. Vail has never had a big fire in its 50-year existence, nor were there any before in recorded history. But Miller points out that even the best mitigation measures cannot totally eliminate risk for homes located in what is called the wildland-urban interface, and forests will eventually burn.

With a warming climate and aging forests, that's a reality that almost all mountain towns are being forced to reckon with.

In Breckenridge, the worry is that a hot fire will sterilize the soil, creating erosion that mucks up municipal reservoirs. The plan calls for creation of check-dams, to contain the erosion.

In Park City, local fire, water and other districts got to work this year on a community plan to address the risk of wildfires.

In the Ketchum-Sun Valley area, the threat of wildfire ceased being theoretical in 2007. That fire burned several homes on the edge of Ketchum. In August, another major fire blew up, threatening Hailey, site of the courthouse for Blaine County. Just one house was lost in a rural subdivision, but there are now calls for more measures to mitigate risk.

Fighting such fires is very expensive, and the federal government mostly picks up the tab.

In Jackson Hole, the U.S. Forest Service this fall issued a bill to a man who had let a trash fire spread a year before, leading to a major fire that had hundreds if not thousands of residents of Jackson, the valley's only town, packing their bags in case of evacuation.

Price of commitment: $689

That was the price of the Epic Pass, the powerful come-on by Vail Resorts if purchased by Sept. 1. It provides unlimited season passes at 12 U.S. ski areas plus privileges in the Alps, all of what used to be the price of a season pass at just one of the resorts.

It's been a powerful business device that has upended the ski industry, particularly in the destination resorts of the West.

The idea of discounted ski passes actually originated at a ski area near Duluth, Minn., in the 1980s, was copied in the Tahoe area and then by Idaho's Bogus Basin before spreading to Colorado. Vail Resorts just upped the ante.

Other ski areas have been forced to respond with what might be called friends-with-benefits packages. Prominent is the Rocky Mountain Collective, which costs $399 and provides two days each at Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Whistler-Blackcomb, Mammoth, Alta and Snowbird, and Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

Even isolated resorts, such as Sun Valley, have been forced to lower their season pass prices.

Yes, it still costs plenty of money to ski if you buy a single-day lift ticket. Between Christmas and New Year's, the price was $139 at Vail and Beaver Creek. At Aspen and Snowmass, it was $124. At Deer Valley, it was $114.

Both sides benefit in this deal. Consumers willing to commit in advance of ski season to a season pass get on-mountain skiing cheaper than it's ever been. Ski area operators get assurances of income even if the snow doesn't fall, don't have to wait until winter to get that paycheck. It gets paid in advance.

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