Royal Gorge's 14,000-square-foot Wilderness Lodge, sections of which dated back to 1865, burned to the ground in the early morning on Oct. 30. Truckers on nearby Interstate 80 (between Sacramento and Truckee, Calif.) reported seeing the glow of the fire at 5:35 a.m. Because the road leading to the lodge is an unimproved service road, the first fire crews didn't arrive on the scene for 20 minutes. By the time those firefighters arrived from the Donner Summit district, the lodge was fully engulfed.
Ironically, the cross-country ski resort's employees had just started moving into the lodge the night before, transitioning operations from the Boy Scout Camp Pahatsi, which uses the building in the summer.
"It's a devastating loss for us, but we're going to deal with it," Royal Gorge owner John Slouber told the local papers Thursday morning as the fire was still being extinguished. "We'll rebuild it," he said. "It's just a bit of bad timing."
Jane Dulaney, marketing director for Royal Gorge, told SNEWS that the Wilderness Lodge was fully insured and that Royal Gorge will rebuild and have a new lodge open for the 2004/2005 season.
In addition, Royal Gorge will likely convert for this season one of its two wilderness cabins into a day-use skier cafe to accommodate the large number of skiers who enjoy a hot cocoa stop mid-point in their ski.
On Oct. 31, the first significant Sierra snowfall this winter began to cover up the only remains of the lodge -- two huge chimneys, charred industrial kitchen appliances, and a stone foundation.
Dulaney told us that the entire staff has been very touched by the phone calls and messages, some of them crying over the loss. "Some of our regular Wilderness Lodge guests have even told us to hold onto their deposits and put them into a reservation for the next year -- they didn't have to do that, but it shows the depth of concern and connection our guests have with our lodge."
Local news reports quoted Donner Summit Fire District Assistant Chief Steve Lieberman as stating the Wilderness Lodge had a good fire inspection and safety record,
though because of the lodge's remote location, firefighters had always been concerned about the risk.
Fire officials said the blaze was caused by something inside the lodge, but they were unsure what. Lieberman estimated the fire began around midnight.
The good news -- if there is such a thing in a disaster such as this -- is that the fire didn't start Wednesday, when high winds in the area could have fanned flames and spread the fire into the surrounding forest.
When Donner Summit fire crews arrived on the scene, they used a portable pump to draw water from a nearby pond until Truckee Fire Protection District crews arrived
with a water tender and an engine. In addition to Donner Summit and Truckee fire districts, Dutch Flat and California Department of Forestry were also called in to fight the fire.
Dulaney told us that since the lodge represented a significant portion of the resort's lodging business (Rainbow Lodge remains open and thriving) and accounted for a large percentage of the operations (overnight guest parking, plowing, shuttling of gear, etc.), this year will be a very different one for the crew. It is also likely that as many as 25 international employees, already planning to head to California for the winter, will no longer be needed.
Day use skiing operations, scheduled to begin for Thanksgiving, are not affected in any way.
SNEWS View: Like many who have sipped hot cocoa from the deck overlooking the nearby pond, or have stayed overnight in the lodge itself and curled up by one of the huge fires with a book and a mulled wine prepared in the late afternoon by the staff, the loss of the lodge hits us like a punch in the gut. Worse than the loss of the building and the jobs likely associated with the loss, are the loss of 30 years worth of photos, albums and pictures all chronicling the history of the lodge. John Slouber has set up a special email account -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- so that anyone with memories of the lodge, articles about the lodge, or access to copies of photographs that can help recreate albums showing the changing fashions, weather events or the party atmosphere can contact him.