‘The fire happened and it broke my heart’: Backcountry race to bring seedlings to burned areas | TahoeDailyTribune.com

‘The fire happened and it broke my heart’: Backcountry race to bring seedlings to burned areas

Participants pose at a past Operation Rebound event at Sierra-at-Tahoe.

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — In 2021, the Caldor Fire ripped through the Sierra Nevada landscape, burning more than 220,000 acres.

Flames damaged structures, vehicles, and lifts and buildings at Sierra-at-Tahoe, and left a charred landscape at a resort famous for its tree skiing.

“The fire happened and it broke my heart,” said Jim Cahill. “This place has been devastated. The fire has created a sadness in the whole place. It’s really hard to explain how a place that was so beautiful is so dark. It’s such a different place now — black sticks, no trees.”

Cahill, 73, had worked at Sierra-at-Tahoe as a ski patroller and now works with adaptive athletes at Kirkwood Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Center. As an Air Force veteran, who served in Vietnam, Cahill had also for years put on races at Sierra-at-Tahoe to support the Challenged Athletes Foundation and its program Operation Rebound.

“The mountains heal people, just naturally,” said Cahill. “So, I got into Operation Rebound.”

Through the program, members of the U.S. armed forces, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and paramedics with permanent physical injuries are given a chance to participate in sports and fitness clinics.

Last fall, as he surveyed the damage caused by the Caldor Fire, Cahill came up with an idea combining his passion for helping others with his love of the Sierra Nevada. He could use his connections at Kirkwood and Sierra-at-Tahoe to create a new event, one that benefitted Operation Rebound but was also a step toward restoring the burned forest at Sierra-at-Tahoe.

Jim Cahill (right) poses next to an Operation Rebound participant at Kirkwood.

He approached Sierra-at-Tahoe General Manager John Rice and Kirkwood General Manager Matt Jones about bringing back a historic cross-country race that was once held between the two resorts. The Echo-to-Kirkwood Race and Tour was held for more than 30 years before being discontinued in the 2000s.

Cahill’s plan was to reverse the course of the classic race to bring the event back, but with a twist. Skiers would be given packaged red fir seedlings, donated by the U.S. Forest Service and Tahoe Resource Conservation District, before racing along the 11.2-mile route. The seedlings will later be planted at Sierra-at-Tahoe. Tahoe Resource Conservation District has also donated funds for a bus to shuttle participants and VSP Vision Care has donated 100 dragon goggles for racers.

The Kirkwood to Sierra-at-Tahoe Backcountry Ski Race will begin near the Schneider Camp parking lot behind the Kirkwood Cross-Country Ski & Snowshoe Center. Skiers will head up to the Pacific Crest Trail near Little Round Top, and then past the headwaters of the South Fork of the American River and Sayles Canyon. From there, skiers will traverse along the rim of Huckleberry Bowl before entering Sierra-at-Tahoe near the top of Grandview chairlift. Racers will complete the course by ringing the bell at the north end of the Solstice Plaza.

“They’ll come down and they’ll get off their skis and they’ll walk up to where the band is going to be and deposit their seedlings,” said Cahill.

Work to finish setting the course for race day on Saturday, April 8, is currently being done, but with storms in the forecast next week, Cahill said adjustments may need to be made.

“If we can’t get this course safe for people, we are going to modify it, but we’ll still do it,” he said, adding that organizers will create a route at Sierra-at-Tahoe if conditions make it unsafe to travers the distance between Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood.

Registration costs $100 and goes toward supporting Operation Rebound and the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

For more information, visit k2sierra4trees.org.

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