By Associated Press Writer
updated 3/17/2006 3:57:19 PM ET 2006-03-17T20:57:19

Arizona Snowbowl employees barreled down the San Francisco peaks on skis and snowboards, whooping their hearty approval of each run.

But they weren't just excited about flying down a mountain. They were happy there was snow at all.

Record-breaking low snowfall this year at the northern Arizona ski resort delayed its opening day by three months, a record. Thanks to a storm last weekend, the resort finally opened to the public on Friday.

"We're all holding our breaths," said 35-year-old Chad Stone, the resort's lift operation supervisor, as crews worked to prepare the slopes on Wednesday. "This whole town is abuzz."

The effects of severe drought and above-normal temperatures are more visible at Snowbowl and the surrounding area than perhaps anywhere else in the state. The area had gotten only a few inches of snow all winter until the recent storm hit; the Phoenix area had gone 143 days without rain.

Flagstaff, a college town two hours north of Phoenix, depends on the tens of thousands of visitors the resort typically attracts.

"The skiers would come in here and it'd be really busy," said 21-year-old Maria Gonzalez, a waitress at Granny's Closet Restaurant & Bar, a Flagstaff institution. "Now it's just local customers and no tourists."

Gonzalez said she was actually making more money in the summer, when Arizonans in warmer parts of the state visit Snowbowl to go up the ski lifts and enjoy a break from the heat.

J.R. Murray, general manager of the resort, called this season at Snowbowl "devastating."

The resort's hundreds of staff members had been hired and trained by November, but most of them found they didn't have a job when the snow never fell, he said.

Managers have had to scramble to hire a full staff in less than a week. Employees have been preparing for the opening by grooming the slopes, posting signs, shoveling snow and ordering food and drinks.

Employees at the resort aren't just worried about making money. Like the rest of the state, they worry about wildfires fueled by tinder-dry trees already weak from bark beetle infestation.

"We have hundreds of years of fuels on the ground that have never been treated," said B.J. Boyle, ski patrol director at the resort. "If we ever get a fire down below, this place would just go up in flames. It would torch."

Boyle said he hopes the snow continues to fall.

"This March snow is hopefully a change in pattern," he said. "I don't know. It might be too little too late."

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