Tensions flare following Kirkwood fire | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Tensions flare following Kirkwood fire

Adam Jensen

KIRKWOOD, Calif. – Providing power to Kirkwood Mountain Resort’s isolated community has long been a problem. A problem solved via a diesel fired power plant that provides a constant hum near the resort’s Red Cliffs parking lot.

But a New Year’s Day fire that destroyed the sole power source to Kirkwood Valley has left local residents pointing fingers and area managers scrambling to figure out a better solution, both for now and in the future.

The construction of the new power plant in the Kirkwood Valley was a focus of a special meeting held by the Kirkwood Meadows Public Utility District on Tuesday night.

The New Year’s Day fire destroyed the valley’s power source and the building that housed it. It also left residents without power for almost a day and closed down mountain operations for almost two days.

Plans are in development to connect Kirkwood Valley to the power grid, but construction on the necessary line won’t be complete for several years, said Tom Henie, General Manager for Kirkwood Meadows Public Utility District, at Tuesday’s meeting.

In the meantime, the utility district and Kirkwood Mountain Resort will work together to build a new diesel power plant, David Likens, the CEO of Mountain Springs Kirkwood said Thursday.

Mountain Springs Kirkwood owns both Kirkwood Mountain Resort and Mountain Utilities, the company that owns the power plant.

The new plant will likely be located adjacent to the power plant that burned New Year’s Day.

The details have yet to be worked out regarding construction of the plant, but design began on Thursday, Likens said.

Getting the power plant built before next ski season is will be difficult, but critical, Henie said.

“We can’t go into next season the way we look now,” Henie said.

Kirkwood officials hope to have the new power plant completed by September. The new power plant would serve as backup power for Kirkwood Valley if the power line project is approved, Henie said.

During a closed session portion of Tuesday’s meeting, the utility district directors approved an offer to purchase Mountain Utilities, said Michael Sharp, the utility district’s assistant manager, on Wednesday. Utility district staff were also authorized to hire a condemnation attorney at the closed session.

The utility district has discussed purchasing Mountain Utilities for the past several years because the district, the resort and many within the Kirkwood community feel it is more appropriate for a public entity to produce power rather than a ski resort, Sharp said.

About 20 people attended Tuesday’s meeting. Several Kirkwood residents were critical of both the public utility district and Kirkwood Mountain Resort leadership because of the fire.

Resident Gordon Zuckerman chastised members of the utility district for not putting in fire hydrants adjacent to the power plant, especially in light of past problems.

“I’m just absolutely dumbfounded that a duly elected body doesn’t have a sense of responsibility to look at things and make changes if they’re wrong,” Zuckerman said. “I don’t understand that.”

In November 2004, exhaust from one of the resort’s six generators overheated a section of the wood structure, causing a fire that knocked out power to Kirkwood residences and ski lifts. Three portable generators provided power to the resort and valley residences following that fire.

In February 2008, lifts at the resort were forced to close for more than a day after Mountain Utilities experienced mechanical problems with two of its generators.

Public utility district directors defended the placement of fire hydrants on Tuesday, contending the existing arrangement meets legal requirements.

Director Leo Smith said the possibility of placing a fire hydrant next to the power plant was not brought to the board’s attention prior to the New Year’s Day fire.

“Until something is brought to the surface, we don’t have all the answers,” Smith said.

Running fire hoses from the nearest hydrant across the street from the power plant created a hazard for motorists and delayed the response to the fire, said Rick Ansel, Kirkwood Volunteer Fire Department Chief, on Tuesday. A hydrant adjacent to the plant would not only help protect the power plant but a nearby employee housing complex, Ansel said.

Robert Ende, the president of the East Meadows Homeowners Association, criticized Mountain Springs Kirkwood for not having an automatic sprinkler system installed in the power plant.

He questioned whether the plant, which was built in the 1970s, was up to current code.

“The fundamental question is, was the building in compliance?” Ende asked.

Likens called the Ende’s criticism “unwarranted,” saying the power plant has consistently passed inspection by fire officials, Alpine County building officials and the California Public Utilities Commission.

A plan to connect Kirkwood Valley to the power grid is undergoing environmental review. But the connection to the grid would not be made until at least fall of 2012, Henie said Tuesday.

An underground power line from a substation near Salt Springs would be used to make the connection. The $30 million project will prevent the price of electricity in the Kirkwood Valley from fluctuating with the price of diesel fuel and will provide a more consistent source of power to both the resort and valley residents, Likens said.

Funding for the project will come through general obligation municipal bonds.

But if the ski resort folds, homeowners could be stuck paying the debt created by the project. Contingent liability would amount to approximately $50,000 per household, Likens said.

Zuckerman expressed concerns that valley residents would be left footing the bill if Kirkwood Mountain Resort goes out of business.

But even under a “doomsday scenario” for Kirkwood, the concern is unfounded, Likens said.

Zuckerman also questioned whether the utility district has made a full disclosure about the liability to residents.

The utility district has not, but will as more details of the power line project become available, Henie said.

Zuckerman said he had asked the question about homeowners’ liability regarding the power line project for six months, but Tuesday was the first time he had gotten a straight answer.

Likens said it was unfair to criticize the utility district’s notice of the power line project, because the district has been “absolutely methodical.”

Construction of the power line project will depend on approvals by several local and state agencies, as well as the U.S. Forest Service. The final approval will rest with the Kirkwood Meadows Public Utility District.

Presentation of the complete power line plan could happen as soon as this summer.

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