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Wildfires threaten summer Rocky Mountain tourism

Posted: June 25, 2012 1:00 p.m.
Updated: June 25, 2012 1:00 p.m.


MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — Colorado's brutal wildfire season has its $5 billion tourism industry on edge as images like those of smoke-choked Pikes Peak and flaming vacation cabins near Rocky Mountain National Park threaten to scare away summer tourists.

Colorado is having its worst fire season since the drought-stricken year of 2002. In June of that year, wildfires charring tens of thousands of acres near the resort towns of Glenwood Springs and Durango and in Pike National Forest near Denver prompted then-Gov. Bill Owens to proclaim that it looked as if "all of Colorado is burning today."

Tourism and hotel officials reacted furiously. Mike Dutcher, manager of the Blue Skies Inn at the base of Pikes Peak, said the effect was immediate.

"The phones didn't ring for three days during the height of the season, and when they started ringing again, it was cancellations," Dutcher said.

With more than a half dozen forest fires burning across the state's parched terrain, some hotels and campgrounds are emptying ahead of the busy Fourth of July holiday. Open burn bans threatened holiday campfires. And some vacation hotspots far from the flames were scrambling to remind travelers they're fire-free.

"The phones are ringing with people inquiring about the fires," said Debbie Braun, head of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. So far, she said, visitors are reassured that part of Colorado is clear.

"Basically occupancy this summer is off the charts," Braun said.

A blaze near Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak grew to more than 6 square miles and over the weekend prompted evacuation orders for 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. Many were allowed to return Monday, but smoke and haze at times obscured Pikes Peak, the most-summited high-elevation mountain in the nation and inspiration for the song, "America The Beautiful."

A few guests at the Blue Skies Inn canceled Saturday when they saw plumes of smoke on TV. The remaining nine rooms had to be emptied after midnight Sunday, the bed-and-breakfast's first evacuation in 15 years.

"We just went room to room, knocked on doors and said, 'We need to boogie now,'" Dutcher said.

Meanwhile, the resort town of Estes Park, a gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, was recovering from a quick-moving blaze that destroyed 20 homes, many of them vacation cabins, over the weekend.

The Blue Skies Inn was back open Monday when the evacuation was lifted, but Dutcher said his business is still in danger — from edgy tourists who may avoid Colorado because of the fires.

"Tourism is a big business in Colorado, and if you hyperventilate when CNN shows up, it hurts a lot of people," Dutcher said.

One of those is Tessa Gray, an evacuated resident who also manages a vacation cabin. She's waiting out the fire in an evacuation center and said she's already lost a booking for the week of July 4, typically her easiest time renting the cabin.

"You don't want to come up here and run in fear, especially if you don't live here," she said. "It's caused us to lose some business. If we don't get some rain, I expect to lose all of July and August."

The head of the state's tourism office said it's too soon to know how the fires are affecting the number of summer tourists. But Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office, added, "The active fires represent a very, very small piece of Colorado."

In northern Colorado, authorities announced that the High Park Fire had destroyed 248 homes, up from 191. One woman was killed. Started by lightning June 9, the High Park Fire is the second-largest wildfire in Colorado's history. It has scorched more than 130 square miles and was just 45 percent contained Monday.

Elsewhere across the West:

— An Alaska wildfire between Mount McKinley and town of Anderson grew to more than 30 square miles Monday. No homes were threatened.

— Despite dry, hot conditions, firefighters battling a fire that consumed nearly 70 square miles west of Roswell, N.M., was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home. And across the state, two small fires north of Santa Fe Sunday evening prompted brief evacuations of a handful of homes. One of the blazes threatened the historic El Santuario de Chimayo, a 19th century church that receives almost 300,000 visitors per year, but the church appeared out of danger Monday.

— A wildfire in Tonto National Forest near Young, Ariz., was 65 percent contained Monday as winds slowed to about 3 mph.

— Evacuation orders remained in place in Sanpete County, Utah, where said they had 10 percent containment on a fire that's threatening about 300 homes in Sanpete County.


Associated Press writers Rema Rahman and Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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