Fires threatening tourism in West

In Cascade, Colo., Greg Bodine hugs his wife, Karen, as they watch a fire burn from atop her parents' home.
In Cascade, Colo., Greg Bodine hugs his wife, Karen, as they watch a fire burn from atop her parents' home. (CHRISTIAN MURDOCK / Colorado Springs Gazette)
Posted: June 26, 2012

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. - Wildfires across the West have put tourist destinations from Montana to New Mexico in danger at the height of the midsummer family road-trip season, when hordes of vacationers visit well-known Western landscapes.

In Colorado, the $5 billion tourism industry is on edge as images of smoke-choked Pikes Peak and flaming vacation cabins near Rocky Mountain National Park threaten to scare away summer tourists.

In central Utah, a wildfire in an area dotted with vacation cabins was burning an estimated 39 square miles and threatening about 300 homes. Firefighters had that blaze at 10 percent containment Monday. The Sanpete County Sheriff's Office said as many as 30 structures may have been lost.

And in New Mexico, firefighters Monday were mopping up a small wildfire that threatened one of that state's top tourist attractions, El Santuario de Chimayo, a 19th-century church north of Santa Fe. The church, which draws about 300,000 visitors a year, appeared to be out of danger Monday.

Firefighters hoped calmer winds Monday and additional firefighting air tankers would assist in battling wildfires across the region.

But even as firefighters made progress on blazes threatening structures from Utah to Montana, and some evacuated residents in Colorado were allowed to return home, tourists streamed out of some of Colorado's most popular summer destinations.

"They don't want to come back where it is smoky and uncomfortable, so they move on," said Chris Champlin, operator of the Pikes Peak RV Park, which is usually packed ahead of the July 4 holiday.

The fire that emptied Champlin's RV park burned out of control at more than five square miles Monday, with smoke at times obscuring Pikes Peak.

Despite the firefighting advances across the region, tourism officials feared the tinderbox-dry conditions and fire danger could spook visitors during the peak summer season.

In Manitou Springs, a tourist town at the base of Pikes Peak, the Blue Skies Inn was back open for business Monday, a day after guests had been roused and told to evacuate. But manager Mike Dutcher worried that officials pleading for firefighting help could spook visitors.

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

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

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."

Elsewhere across the West:

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

Despite dry, hot conditions, firefighters battling a blaze that consumed nearly 70 square miles west of Ruidoso, N.M., was 90 percent contained, with many residents allowed to return home.

A wildfire in Tonto National Forest near Young, Ariz., was 65 percent contained Monday as winds diminished.

Authorities in southwestern Montana ordered residential evacuations in two small communities threatened by a wildfire, though an exact count wasn't immediately known. The blaze was one of two burning in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

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