Published June 25, 2012
MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. – Colorado's brutal wildfire season has the tourism industry on edge as images of smoke-choked landmarks and flaming vacation cabins dominate the news.
Colorado is having its worst wildfire season in a decade, 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. And some vacation hotspots far from the flames worry they'll be affected, too.
A blaze near Colorado Springs, at the base of Pikes Peak, grew to more than 6 square miles Sunday, prompting evacuation orders for 11,000 residents and an unknown number of tourists. Many were allowed to return by 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."
Meanwhile, the resort town of Estes Park near Rocky Mountain National Park was recovering a quick-moving blaze that destroyed 22 homes, many of them vacation cabins.
A few guests at the Blue Skies Inn at the base of Pikes Peak had already canceled when they saw plumes of smoke on TV Saturday. 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,'" said manager Mike Dutcher. The 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.
Dutcher remembers a brutal wildfire season a decade ago, when a former governor famously told news cameras "all of Colorado is on fire." The governor was referring to a blaze that was many miles from Pikes Peak, but Dutcher 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. "It's something that needs to be handled carefully. Tourism is a big business in Colorado, and if you hyperventilate when CNN shows up, it hurts a lot of people."
Even while other large fires burn across the West, Colorado's blazes have demanded half the nation's firefighting fleet, according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
In a signal of how serious the nation's fire threat has become, the U.S. Forest Service asked the Air Force to activate four C-130 cargo planes equipped to drop water or fire retardant. The Forest Service is allowed to request the planes only when all private tanker planes already are fighting fires or are unavailable for use.
The C-130s are expected to be ready by Tuesday but officials haven't said where they would be deployed. Two are from the Wyoming Air National Guard in Cheyenne, Wyo., and two from the Colorado Air Force Reserve at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo.
Also over the weekend, residents of a subdivision near the northern Colorado city of Fort Collins learned that 57 more homes in their neighborhood had been lost to the High Park Fire, which already had claimed 191 homes, authorities said.
The High Park Fire is the second-largest wildfire and among the most expensive in Colorado's history. It has scorched more than 130 square miles and was just 45 percent contained.
Elsewhere, firefighters were hoping lighter winds would assist make progress against wildfires in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico and California.
— 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.