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Dorner manhunt scares skiers away from Big Bear resorts

A massive manhunt in the Big Bear area for a former police officer suspected of killing three people is scaring off some visitors to nearby ski slopes just as resort operators were counting on fresh powder to help them rebound from an abysmal snow season last year.

More than 100 officers, many in tactical gear and carrying automatic weapons, continued the search Friday in the San Bernardino Mountains for former Los Angeles Police Officer Christopher Jordan Dorner.

The Bear Mountain and Snow Summit ski resorts opened as usual Friday morning after the manhunt forced the early closure of Bear Mountain on Thursday afternoon.

San Bernardino County Sheriff John McMahon defended the decision to reopen local ski resorts, saying an extensive search around the city found no evidence that Dorner was still in the area.

But the presence of so many law enforcement officers searching for a heavily armed suspect already scared off some day visitors, cutting ski business about 15%, resort officials said. Lodge operators were also reporting that nervous guests canceled reservations for weekend getaways.

"It's definitely slower than it would have been," said Brent Tregaskis, general manager of Bear Mountain. "That is the part of this that is a negative."

Some hard-core snow buffs refused to let the manhunt keep them off the slopes.

Matt Duncan, 23, of Anaheim Hills said he drove to Snow Summit to snowboard with three friends and found plenty of fresh powder and few crowds.

"It's the freshest of the fresh powder and there is no one here," he said.

As for the potential dangers of snowboarding amid an intense police search, Duncan was philosophical.

"We figure there is one crazy guy on the loose up here," he said. "If we were in L.A., how many crazy guys would be out on the loose there?"

Resort operators at Big Bear Lake also tried to find a silver lining Friday, saying the multitude of television news reports from the mountain means lots of people can see how much snow is falling on the slopes.

"The good news is millions of people are seeing that it's snowing," Tregaskis said.

Ski resort operators near Big Bear Lake are hoping business will rebound from last season, when meager snowfall around the nation was responsible for one of the worst ski seasons in decades.

"We definitely want to get the message out that we are open for business," said Dan McKernan, spokesman for the Big Bear Lake Resort Assn., a nonprofit group that promotes tourism around the lake.

Resorts nationwide drew 51 million skier and snowboarder visits last season, down 15.8% from the previous season and the second-biggest year-over-year decline on record, according to the National Ski Areas Assn., a trade group for resort operators.

In California, visits to ski resorts dropped 27% from the state's five-year average of 7.4 million per season.

The slopes near Big Bear Lake had already received 3 feet of snow so far this season. Low temperatures over the last month also have enabled resort operators to supplement the natural snow with man-made snow.

But the manhunt for Dorner intensified just as fresh powder began to fall at the start of what resort operators expected to be a busy ski weekend.

The latest storm is expected to drop up to 10 inches of snow on Bear Mountain and Snow Summit, according to the National Weather Service. Snow chains were required on some mountain roads Friday.

At the 98-unit Lagonita Lodge on the shore of Big Bear Lake, several guests canceled plans to stay the weekend, said Janice Jett, a front desk supervisor at the lodge.

"We've had several guests call, very nervous about coming to the area," she said.

At Snow Summit Townhouse Rentals, one guest who was nervous about bringing his daughters to the mountain postponed his weekend visit for another time, said Jaimee Estrada, an employee at the business. Still, about half the 47 rentals are booked this weekend, she said.

"We've had a lot of people call to ask if it's OK to come up, is it safe, are the roads open," Estrada said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

phil.willon@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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