The lodge at the oldest downhill ski hill in Fairbanks burned to the ground in less than an hour today. The hill closed back in 1993 but the lodge sat vacant as a piece of skiing history the past 15 years. There had been three previous ski lodges at Cleary Summit, all of which had burned to the ground over the years--and now the most recent structure, which dates back to 1960, is a pile of ashes along the Steese Hwy. So today marks the close of the final chapter for the Cleary Summit Ski Area. There are some nice classic pictures of Cleary Summit ranging from the 1940's to the early 1990's on the Alaska Lost Ski Area's webpage.
So why I am I posting this story? What started as a usual day in the field taking monthly ice thickness measurements around Fairbanks had an unusual turn as we drove over Cleary Summit. My coworker and I drove by the ski lodge on the way out to the Chatanika River around 8:30 am and came across an orange truck that had spun out across the road and was stuck in the snowbank adjacent to the Clearly Summit Ski Lodge. There didnt appear to be anyone around so we continued on our way.
About an hour later we passed by again on our way back towards town. From a distance we noticed a very faint whiff of smoke coming from one of the eves of the lodge. It was barely noticeable and we nearly kept on driving. What really caught our attention and seemed rather peculiar was that the passenger door on the orange truck was wide open and partially sticking out into a lane of the Steese Hwy. We stopped to close the door and found that the keys were still in the ignition. Then suddenly we observed two plumes of smoke rising from the lodge. It was obviously on fire and we ran over to see if anyone might be in there. At that time two other guys showed up and went down to the building to investigate as I called 911. We were asked to remain at the scene until a trooper arrived.
The building rapidly went up in flames as the fire spread to the second floor. The structure creaked and moaned as the large wood timbers ignited and the metal roof melted away. A few others pulled over as black smoke belched into the cold air and left a tar-like smear more than a mile long across the horizon. One guy reminisced about eating plate fulls of nachos in the lodge while another commented about all the beers he drank in the historic building that was in its final moments of existence. Another local at the scene said that he had seen the orange truck parked near the lodge on several occasions during the past few weeks and he speculated that someone had been squatting inside. We were just uncertain at the time if this person might still be inside.
Meanwhile the trooper had gone up the road to a place where he could get radio reception. From out of nowhere two vehicles pulled up next to the orange truck and quickly attached a tow-strap to the back bumper. They hauled the orange hunk of steel out of the ditch and attempted to get the thing started. The group of us standing around were not quite sure if this was the owner of the truck and if we should say anything. Seconds later the trooper arrives with his lights flashing and stops to question the guys gathered around the orange truck. We decided it was time to get back to work and we climbed into our vehicle as the old lodge collapsed and became a glowing pile of memories in our rearview mirror.
Update as of Thursday, Jan 31, 2008:
So the plot thickened as more information surfaced: stolen vehicle, revoked license, etc. One of the guys that showed up to pull the orange truck from the snowbank was the owner. He apparently smelled like smoke and was wearing some clothing that had been torched. He denied having any connection with the burning ski lodge adjacent to his stranded truck. For the complete story read the article in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.