By Jennifer Oldham
A wildfire in the Colorado mountains that’s consumed an area bigger than Washington, D.C., is causing visitors to shy away from the state during what officials hoped would be a record-breaking summer for tourism.
Ranch operators, fishing guides and river rafting companies said smoke and road closures from the so-called High Park Fire, blamed for one death and the destruction of at least 181 homes in Larimer County after a lightning strike June 9, are causing cancellations during their busiest time of year.
“It’s definitely affecting business, there’s no doubt about it,” said Orin Carney, owner of Bighorn Cabins, whose 10 rentals are about eight miles (13 kilometers) from the fire. “Most people don’t want to know if they should come to the area, they want to know if they can get a refund on their deposit. They are scared to death to come up here.”
Carney, who said his prime season is May through October, said he’s lost thousands of dollars in reservations. It’s very difficult for his customers to access his cabins because many roads in the area are closed, he said.
The fire, about 80 miles (129 kilometers) north of Denver, is affecting tourism primarily near Fort Collins and hasn’t rippled through to attractions such as Aspen and Glenwood Springs in the western half of the state, Vail in the central mountains, or Durango to the southwest, business leaders said.
Temperatures in the 90s Fahrenheit (32 Celsius) and winds as strong as 50 miles per hour (80 kilometers per hour) accelerated the flames through dense stands of trees killed by the mountain pine beetle, the U.S. Forest Service said. About 1,750 people were fighting the blaze, which covered about 90 square miles and was about 50 percent contained at 8 p.m. local time, according to the forest service.
The Poudre River, popular with whitewater rafters, was inaccessible because of the fire, requiring A Wanderlust Adventure to cancel all trips for the last 10 days — the first time the company’s been shut down that long in the 20 years that Bob Klien’s run the business.
“Normally, we’re booked up at this time,” Klein said. “We can take 120 people a day. The canyon is closed to all outfitters right now — we’re in a holding pattern.”
The High Park Fire, about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, home to Colorado State University and a hub for the state’s craft beer brewers, isn’t expected to affect a festival that may draw as many as 20,000 ale drinkers to the college town this weekend to sample 70 beers.
“We have had people calling ahead to verify there aren’t negative impacts,” said Peggy Lyle, event director for Fort Collins’s Downtown Business Association. “We’ve been able to calm their fears that the festival won’t be postponed or affected in any way.”
In Estes Park, 43 miles southwest of Fort Collins, tourism officials said misperceptions about the fire’s location are causing hotels and recreation outfitters along the Rocky Mountains to lose business.
“We can see the plumes of smoke that go up when the fire hits a big patch of beetle-kill, but it’s not affecting us,” said Suzy Blackhurst, communications manager for the Estes Park Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“There have been a significant number of people who have called to find out whether or not the fire is impacting the air quality,” she said. “Quite frankly, we’re not seeing any impact at all here, we have beautiful blue skies.”
Summer in Estes Park — home to the Rocky Mountain National Park, with expansive views of the mountains from Trail Ridge Road — is the busiest time of the year for tourism.
In Denver, although the air smelled of a campfire for several days since the fire started, officials said city events weren’t affected.
“The seven counties of Metro Denver are the size of Connecticut,” said Rich Grant, a spokesman for Visit Denver, the city’s convention and visitor’s bureau. “The fire’s not in one of those seven counties. It’s hard for people to grasp how big the West is.”
The fire hasn’t impeded routes to a majority of the state’s popular summer getaways, which log 62 percent of their tourism spending in the summer, said Al White, director of the Colorado Tourism Office.
“People at this time are not being deterred,” he said. “We have 23 million acres of public lands and at 58,000 acres, the High Park Fire is a really small percentage of those public lands.”
Colorado’s tourism industry enjoyed a record year in 2010, the latest year figures are available, charting 55.1 million visitors and $14.6 billion in revenue, White said. Officials expect 2011 also broke records with more than $15 billion in revenue.
“People in the tourism industry are anticipating this has the potential of being a record-breaking summer in terms of dollars and visitors,” White said. “You never can predict what will happen. It’s still hot and dry in most of the state — so we’ll see.”
–Editors: Jeffrey Taylor, Pete Young
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