SILVERTON – The collateral damage inflicted by the 416 Fire hit more than homeowners and businesses within a few miles of the blaze; it also hit owners of shops and restaurants dozens of miles north in Silverton.
Lost summer sales from the three to four daily runs of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad only augmented the pain many merchants in this mountain town were feeling from a weak winter season, when a paltry snowpack hurt their cash registers.
“The disaster really started in November, with the lack of snow. So, this is the continuation of a tough year,” said DeAnne Gallegos, owner of the Chocolate Dog, 1303 Greene St. in Silverton, and the executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce.
Gallegos said she wants to get the word out that while the San Juan National Forest is closed, the Alpine Loop running from Silverton to Lake City and administered by the Bureau of Land Management remains open and offers hiking, mountain biking and four-wheeling opportunities.
Wyatt Carmack, owner of Outdoor World, said the closure of the forest is particularly harmful to his outdoor-recreation store.
Expecting a potentially bad wildfire season, he changed his buying strategy.
“I’m glad I listened to my gut and didn’t buy a lot of inventory. Honestly, I can say I did anticipate this,” Carmack said Sunday afternoon. “But we got some good, steady rain today. Hurricane Bud, he’s my new best bud, Hurricane Bud, so maybe we can salvage some of the season, July and August, if the rains come.”
Carmack, who said his June sales are down 70 percent, is worried that the fire coming at the beginning of the summer will lead to problems down the road.
“This happened early, and a lot of reservations are pending for all summer,” he said.
He worries that people will assume the entire summer season will be bad and will cancel July, August and September plans in the San Juan National Forest and move their outdoor excursions elsewhere.
“They’ll say: ‘Why bother,’” he said.
Heidi and Scott Pankow of Ouray and Jennifer King, who remained evacuated from her Falls Creek home on Sunday, were in Silverton to support their neighbors.
“I came to spend some money,” King said. “I feel (Silverton) has been so isolated and cut off. I wanted to volunteer, but most of the spots were already filled. I thought, ‘Well, what can I do? I can spend some money.’”
The Pankows felt the same.
“We wanted to come down and do a little power shopping and help out our friends and neighbors,” Heidi Pankow said.
Bill Walko, owner of Natalia’s 1912 Restaurant, 1159 Blair St., said the 416 Fire came early in June before businesses were able to accrue any earnings for the month, and the timing made it a particularly difficult business challenge.
Like many shops and restaurants on Blair Street, Walko said he is particularly dependent on the Durango train runs, estimating 90 percent of his business comes from train passengers.
“We’re doing everything we can to balance the needs of our employees and keep everyone employed with limited hours. And we do appreciate everyone who has made an effort to come to Silverton. It does make a difference,” he said.
Melanie Bergolc, an employee at the Old Arcade Trading Co., 1202 Empire St., said during the past week, the days when the store was down 50 percent in daily sales felt “like victories.”
And she said Sunday – the first day U.S. Highway 550 opened to unfettered traffic since June 1 – provided a noticeable bump in sales.
“I like to say I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said, noting that many sales clerks had been laid off in town because of the fire’s impact.
She said Janice Sanders, owner of the Old Arcade, kept her staff employed and shuffled employees to her two stores in Ouray to spread hours and provide some shifts to everyone.
Linda Dailey, owner of Rocky Mountain Gifts, said the summer is so vital to sales she can’t help but be concerned.
“It’s hard on locals,” she said. “We work hard for five or six months so we can live off our own money for the winter. So, yes, I am a little worried.”
Gallegos said she has begun working with Melanie Russek, development and recovery coordinator for the San Juan Economic Development Association, to develop an economic recovery program to help small businesses.
“Right now, we are a vulnerable community,” she said. “We’re a small town. We’ll band together. That’s how we’ll get through.”
Russek said the tough winter and now the 416 Fire show the need for resiliency planning.
Ideas like boosting winter and shoulder season recreational offerings, bolstering the creative arts community and attracting telecommuters are all pointed to as ideas to diversify the economy.
“The psychological piece is important now, just maintaining community morale,” she said.