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Can snow guns fight wildfire?

Snow guns would be effective against a wildfire, in the right place.

NEDERLAND, Colorado — Can snow guns be an effective tool in fighting a wildfire? If they are in the right place, these pieces of hardware can help.

A fleet of snow guns, like the ones Eldora Mountain Resort uses to prime their early season ski runs, might be able to provide enough moisture to be effective against a wildfire. The problem is, the way they operate doesn't really allow for the guns to be deployed remotely.

Those guns are designed to work in concert with existing infrastructure at the resort, like the pumps, the nearby water supply and the pipes that under the ski runs.

“Once you were to remove the snow gun from that system, it wouldn’t work. So it’s not really practical to bring guns and transport them to another location to a remote fire,” said Sam Bass, marketing director at Eldora.

Bass said they can’t bring their snow guns to a wildfire, but he does believe that they would be effective in a fighting a wildfire if there was ever one that moved onto resort property.

“Our snow making system in that case, is the primary means of fire protection if Eldora’s boundaries were to be threatened by wildfire,” said Bass.

Eldora’s snow guns can spray up to 3,000 gallons of water per minute, and they can cover 90% of their terrain, according to Bass.

Eldora has a fire mitigation plan, where in the offseason, they keep their snow cannons primed with water in the lines, and they test them regularly, because they know the ski resort, and rest of the community are prone to wildfire, Bass said.

“If the situation arose where we stood between the town of Nederland or other nearby communities, and a fire, we would do all we could to stop that fire in its tracks,” Bass said.

RELATED: Wildfire forces evacuations in Grand County

Natural snowfall

An early September winter storm dropped 16 inches of snow directly on top of the Cameron Peak fire, and all it did was slow it down for about a week. That was the first time many Colorado residents learned that snow is not an effective way to stop a wildfire.

That’s because it takes 12 to 18 inches of snow to create just 1 inch of water at that elevation. It’s the water in the snow, not the snow itself that is useful to firefighters.

Firefighters say they would need a lot more water, and it would have to keep the ground and the trees wet for several weeks to stop the larger fires burning in our region.

The Medio Fire

Ski Santa Fe in New Mexico, just went through a situation in late August when the Medio fire was closing in on their area. 

"When we saw the smoke plume coming over the horizon, it looked like it was moving fast and coming right for us," said Josh Faber the mountain manager at Ski Santa Fe.

Credit: Jack Dant
Medio Fire moving in on Santa Fe Ski Area in August 2020.

Faber said they scrambled to get their snow cannons set up. That is the protocol they have laid out in their wildfire mitigation plan. But he said a lucky wind shift stopped the quick progress of the fire just before they started spraying water. 

He also believes snow guns can have an impact on stopping wildfire.

"Just adding all that moisture to the air, and wetting down all the trees, grasses, and buildings has got to have an impact. At least it would be far better than doing nothing," said Faber.

Credit: Jack Dant
Santa Fe Ski Area testing their snow guns as a defensive tool against wildfire.

Faber said that they used the Medio incident as a drill to test their response to incoming wildfire, and he said it gives him confidence in his crews ability to respond to a wildfire near their ski area in the future.

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