The Night Vail Resort Went Up in Flames

Two Elk restaurant engulfed in flames from the 1998 arson in Vail, Colorado. Photo Credit: Vail Fire Department / AP file.

More than twenty years ago, on October 19th, 1998, a group of people now known to be associated with the Earth Liberation Front targeted Vail Ski Resort in one of the worst ecoterrorism attacks in the history of the United States. Multiple buildings were destroyed and the cost of damages soared into the millions, leaving authorities with more than 100 suspects and prompting an ongoing investigation.

Here’s a brief look at what happened, why it happened, and where things stand two decades later:

The Attack

According to a memo filed by U.S. prosecutors, the attacks on Vail Mountain started in the early morning of October 19th, 1998, when a man named William C. Rodgers lit gas cans on fire beside multiple structures, including Two Elk Lodge, Ski Patrol Headquarters, and Chair 5.

Originally, the group had intended to use timers to detonate their firebombs on an earlier date, but the group postponed their attack due to “ difficulties involved in the arson.” While seven people were said to be involved in the original effort, this new plan sent five of those initially involved back to their Oregon homes.

Prior to lighting the cans, Rodgers had hiked the fuel up the mountain over several days with the help of Chelsea D. Gerlach, his driver. The fuel canisters were put into white plastic bags to camouflage them against the surrounding snow.

On the night of the attack, Gerlach dropped Rodgers off on the mountain after nightfall. Rodgers then readied the canisters and lit them, watching to ensure a fire was started by each. It's reported that, at one point, he opted not to burn a building after realizing people were inside.

Once Rodgers had lit the canisters, he returned down the mountain to Gerlach’s parked car. The two then drove to Denver and sent an email claiming responsibility for the attack from the public library.

While all of the fires didn’t take, some of them raged, striking terror among those able to see the mountain.

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The Motive

Following the attack, the public was left wondering why Vail Resort was singled out by the Earth Liberation Front, also known as ELF. In the aforementioned email sent by the group, it was revealed that Vail Resorts Incorporated’s aggressive push for expansion and development was a key factor.

During the time of the attack, there was controversy stirring about how specific moves by Vail Resorts to expand would threaten a project designed reintroduce the lynx to the region. This became the dedication of Earth Liberation Front’s attack – “On behalf of the lynx, five buildings and four lifts at Vail were reduced to ashes on the night of Sunday, October 18th. Vail Inc. is already the largest ski operation in North American and now wants to expand even further.”

Another quote from the group’s message following the attack was “putting profits ahead of Colorado’s wildlife will not be tolerated.”

The specific expansion that was the point of ELF’s grievance was Vail’s move onto Battle Mountain, skiable terrain now called “Blue Sky Basin” on Vail’s trail map. This has since become one of the most popular areas among the resort's winter visitors.

The Night Vail Resort Went Up in Flames

Blue Sky Basin terrain. Photo Credit: Adventure_Photo (iStock).

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The Fallout

By the time all was said and done, the attack resulted in three buildings and four chairlifts burning. Estimations on total damages ranged from $12 million to $24 million, making this one of the worst eco-terrorism attacks the country has ever seen.

Over the past 20 years, 6 of the 7 individuals involved have gone to prison, with one likely still on the run. Still on the run is suspect Josephine Sunshine Overaker, who is thought to be in a number of places around the world, including Spain due to her Spanish language fluency. The FBI is offering $50,000 for information leading to her arrest.

Overaker wasn’t the only involved party that evaded authorities. Rebecca Rubin, spent years hiding in Canada before turning herself in to the FBI at the Canadian border in Blaine, Washington in 2012. At that time, she had been involved in other similar attacks. She was given a sentence of five years. In regard to those involved, it’s also worth noting that William C. Rodgers is now deceased, having committed suicide in jail in 2005.

Despite the attack, the development on Battle Mountain continued, with Blue Sky Basin opening in January 2000 and quickly becoming one of the most popular places to ski at the resort. As a whole, the community of Vail seems to have recovered from the attack, still a thriving mountain town today. However, many long-term locals still remember October 19, 1998 as a day they’ll never forget.

As for the lynx, Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that their reintroduction project was successful, hitting crucial benchmarks by 2010. Today, the lynx population is believed to be between 150 to 200 in the San Juan mountains, with it possible that some of the population reintroduced there has since moved elsewhere in the state.

Here’s a video about the attack if you’re interested in learning more:

Editor's Note: This video was published quite some time ago, prior to when certain facts emerged.

Produced by Advanced Media.

Video discussing the Vail Mountain Resorts fires in 1998 in Vail, CO, the largest eco-terrorism attack in US History at the time.

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