On Monday FEMA authorized the use of federal funds to fight the fires in Colorado that are burning across the state. The most recent fire, in Colorado Springs, resulted in 11,000 evacuations over the weekend. Miguel Almaguer reports.
By Jack Chesnutt
FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- After two weeks of around-the-clock work, firefighters are starting to gain the upper hand on the High Park fire near Fort Collins, Colo. But even as some of the residents are allowed to return to their homes, there is another casualty from the 100-square-mile blaze: Northern Colorado’s annual influx of summer visitors seeking clean air and whitewater rivers.
Jim Clark, executive director of the Ft. Collins Convention and Visitors Bureau, can see a smoky haze over the Roosevelt National Forest from his location downtown.
“The bad news is...we’re known for our outdoor recreation," he said. "A lot of that at the present time is closed.”
Clark’s office is handling many out-of-state calls from people who have questions about the smoke from the fire. For the past several weeks the Colorado Department of Public Health has issued air quality health alerts because of the dense smoke along a 200-mile corridor from Colorado Springs in the south up to the Wyoming border. This week, the smoke has been less of an issue.
“We have lots of things for them in town -- breweries, shops ... everything is still open," Clark said. "But, there are some folks who would have visited us that probably will stay away.”
Over the weekend, new flames near Colorado Springs forced thousands to evacuate -- one of several fires emptying campgrounds and hotels across the parched state.
Preston Harrington and Darrel Sellers, of Lake Charles, La., had planned to climb nearby Pikes Peak. Then they got evacuated from their hotel.
"We're used to the hurricanes and evacuating and what not. And we come up here and expect good weather and since we've been here they've had hailstorms, and now forest fires -- it just reminds us of being back home," Harrington said.
Bill Fee, shopkeeper at the Nature of Things Chainsaw Art in Manitou Springs, Colo., said it's devastating for local businesses, especially the weekend before the Fourth of July when they tend to have the most customers.
"I do worry for Colorado this year for tourism through the whole entire state -- not just the small town of Manitou, which relies completely on tourism -- it affects [businesses] across the board."
Clark says it will be weeks or even months before any hard numbers are available to calculate the loss of visitors due to the fire.
Rafting companies offer refunds
The losses have already started for Pat Legel, owner of Wanderlust Adventure Rafting in Bellevue, Colo. Legel has spent what should have been a busy start to the rafting season dusting off his rafts and life jackets. “This is historical. This is the longest we’ve been out of business.”
Legel’s company offers trips down the Cache la Poudre River, one of the most popular whitewater rivers in Colorado. The fire has cut off access to the river where it runs through the burn zone. Wanderlust is one of six local outfitters which have suspended rafting on the Poudre since June 9.
Legel said his heart goes out to the more than 200 residents who have lost their homes to the fire. But, for his business, the hardest part is making the daily calls to customers to let them know the river canyon is closed and to arrange refunds on their rafting fees.
“It’ll be a survival season, if we can get back some time early July. If not, we’ll have to maybe lay some people off and get a loan to carry us through next year.”
Legel started the company in 1982. He’s now 65.
"I don’t think I will see the landscape along the river recover in my lifetime,” he said.
Tourists changing plans
Jane Servi had house guests for the weekend at her Larimer County home and had to scramble to make new plans for weekend activities. She was looking forward to showing the visitors from Boston a Colorado whitewater adventure. But her Poudre River rafting trip was one of hundreds cancelled by the fire. Eventually she found an alternative rafting location nearly 70 miles away. It was disappointing, she said, but she's more concerned "about the people who are up there whose houses have been destroyed, and people who have been displaced."
Last week "NBC Nightly News" found Grant Houx, owner of St. Peter’s Fly shop in Fort Collins, standing thigh-deep in the Poudre River about 10 miles downstream from the fire. He was whipping a seven-foot-long fly rod through air that tastes like smoke. The water runs clear and cool here, for now. But when late summer rains come, the soot, ash and charred underbrush from 70,000 scorched acres will wash down the Poudre and smaller streams like a black tide. Not good for trout and other native fish.
“'Concern’ is one word. We don’t know exactly what the effects of that soot will be,” he said.
Houx’s fishing guide service has had “a few” fire-related cancellations. He explains that fishing is still good on several other rivers in the area unaffected by the fire.
Fires of 2012 follow record year for Colorado tourism
According to the Colorado Tourism Office, 59.7 million visitors came to the state in 2011. They spent $10.7 billion. Larimer County, where the High Park Fire continues to burn, represents 2.7 percent of statewide visitor spending.
Colorado Tourism Office chief Al White says statewide reservations are up “double-digits over last summer” but acknowledges the impact of the fires in northern Colorado and Fort Collins. The hope is that tourists understand that even a 100 square mile fire represents less than one tenth of one percent of the state of Colorado.
“The High Park fire is a tragedy, but there is still a lot to see and do in Colorado," White said. "And for now, people are still making plans to come here.”
NBC's Vicky Collins contributed to this report.