Fires light up economies, too |

Fires light up economies, too

Cliff Thompson

Eagle County, which has become an increasingly popular summer destination, has not experienced a major fire. But there’s a real fear that even in places the flames don’t burn, the economic damage will be as severe as those in the fires’ paths.

The state is in the grip of the worst recorded drought on record. Eight major wildfires are burning across the state, and more then 140,000 acres and several hundred dwellings have been consumed by flames.

Colorado attracts 24 million visitors annually, with 40 percent of those visiting in June, July and August.

Eagle County residents are holding their breath, both literally and figuratively, as smoke from the 12,110-acre Glenwood fire periodically wafts across the county and winds carry that now slowing fire ever closer.

The fear that the fires will keep tourists away has public relations organizations loudly proclaiming that the areas where the flames haven’t hit are open for business. Less than 1 percent of Colorado’s 66 million acres are burning.

A Vail Marketing District press release, for example, noted that the skies are still blue, summer tourists are welcome, and the fires are claiming only the tiniest fraction of the state’s forests. It’s a proactive approach taken by tourism organizations statewide in attempt to undo the negative publicity from the fires.

Fire plan

The extent of the damage done to tourism by the Coal Seam Fire is yet to be determined, but anecdotal evidence suggests it may have already burned a significant short-term hole in the local tourism industry.

Eagle County has already been singed by the Coal Seam Fire. For Adrian Brink, of A.J. Brink Outfitters at Sweetwater Lake Resort, the fires have has driven some business away.

“We’ve had eight cancellations for the next two weeks,” said Brink, who has lived in the area since 1969. “I’m praying and hoping they (the Forest Service) don’t close the forest. That would put us out of business.”

The Forest Service did close the Pike-San Isabel National Forest after the 100,000-acre Hayman Fire erupted.

Long-time Sweetwater resident Annalies Stephens, who runs a nursery in Dotsero, said the closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon last weekend caused business to slow a bit.

“Last Sunday was slow. People weren’t aware they could drive down here. They would call first and then drive here,” she said. “We’re watchful. I’m not panicking. There’s not much we can do about it.”

Andrea Palm-Porter, owner of Anderson Camp, which hosts youths on the Colorado River Road some 18 miles from the leading edge of the fire, saw and smelled plenty of smoke, but business continued.

“On Sunday we were getting phone calls all morning from concerned parents because of the road closure. Everyone was safe and everyone got home. The next program started without a hitch. We’re just keeping a close watch on what’s going on,” she said.

At the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, one caller in five is asking about fires in the area, said spokesman Ian Anderson. The bureau handles hundreds of calls each month.

There have been a few cancellations but nothing substantive, he said.

Even without a fire, the drought has begun to have an effect. Parched wildlands – the driest that have ever been recorded – have forced fire bans, cancellation of area holiday fireworks displays and have emergency service agencies on high alert.

Eagle County has not experienced a huge wildfire like the 100,000 acre Hayman Fire southwest of Denver, but many fear a fire of that magnitude could happen.

In Glenwood Springs, a town heavily reliant on summer tourism and impacted by the 11,580-acre Coal Seam Fire, a more comprehensive plan to attract wary visitors is afoot.

The Glenwood Springs Chamber of Commerce developed a crisis management plan designed to get the message out that businesses are back operating, and has organized a multi-media approach to get that out.The program includes advertising campaigns, press releases, television and radio interviews, Internet messages and even voice mail messages noting the weather is good and it’s not smoky anymore.

Yellowstone, Mesa Verde

Evidence from two tourism-dependent economies that have weathered major fires – the gateway communities of Yellowstone National Park and from Cortez, near Mesa Verde National Park – show fire’s effects on an economy can be mixed.

The 1 million-acre Yellowstone fire in 1988 had an impact on visitor numbers and on the gateway communities surrounding the 2.2 million-acre park. In 1987, the park saw 2.57 million visitors. That number dropped in to 2.18 million in 1988, but rebounded to 2.64 million the following year.

At West Yellowstone, Mont., Mary Sue Costello, director of the local chamber of commerce, said the fires of 1988 were a wash for most businesses in town.

“The town broke even because fire crews stayed in town hotels and ate at restaurants,” she said. Some retail businesses, particularly those with products or services that fulfill wants as opposed to needs, suffered significant loss of business from the absence of tourists.

At Jackson Hole, Wyo., tourism bounced back immediately because people wanted to see what the fires had done, and also because Yellowstone has so many attractions.

“People don’t drive hundreds of miles to see huge forests of pine trees,” said Angus Thuermer, a reporter with the Jackson Hole News who covered the fires. “What draws them is the wildlife, geysers and grand mountain and lake vistas. Those didn’t burn up.”

Curiously enough, a smaller fire in the park in August 2000 resulted in a five-day closure of the park’s southern entrance. As a result, visitation dove 31.1 percent for the month, from 210,604 visitors to 145,094.

In Cortez, the gateway town for Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado, a 20,000-acre fire closed the park in July 2000.

Park visitation plummeted, from 652,757 in 1999 to 476,148 in 2000.

But the damage to Cortez’s economy was not as significant.

Cortez receives 40 percent of its revenue from tourist activities and sales tax revenues.

In July 2000, sales tax revenues were $15.28 million, slightly ahead of pre-fire 1999’s $15.17 million, said Lynn Dyer, director of the Montezuma County Economic Development Department.

Cortez also saw the economic ravages of the fire buffered by having hundreds of firefighters buying goods and services, she said.

The longer-term impacts of the fire have been difficult to judge. Last year, 537,559 people visited Mesa Verde – an 18 percent drop from pre-fire 1999 numbers. But making direct comparisons is difficult because other factors may have affected the numbers.

A national recession and terrorist attracts have affected tourism across the country.

But one lasting impact of the fire in Cortez is a new spirit of community.

“We’re all working together and thinking creatively,” Dyer said. Cortez has created a new festival focusing on the park and on its cultural connection to the area, she said.


Glenwood Springs has already begun to get back to normal, chamber director Mary Ann Virgilli said.

“By Tuesday (three days after the fire started) 90 percent of the businesses had reopened,” she said. “It’s amazing to me that things get back to normal so quickly. We’re grateful to look up on the hillside and not see any more smoke.”

Glenwood Springs, largely a summer resort, sees 1 million tourists annually with hotel occupancies averaging 90 percent from the beginning of June to Labor Day, Virgilli said.

“On any given day you will see about 4,000 visitors in town,” she said.

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