When a large portion of your economy is based on tourism, there are a lot of terrifying scenarios of how it can get knocked off course.
A devastating wildfire is one. But there are others that we’ve weathered – lack of winter snow, mountain passes closed by avalanches/rock slides, toxic dumps into the river, roads washed out by flash floods.
Nature has a lot of control over the mountain towns of Southwest Colorado – that’s one of the reasons we love it here. The flip side is that it can bring turmoil.
The 416 Fire has done just that (especially in conjunction with the Burro Fire near Dolores), and it will continue to impact the region for years. We won’t know the full scope of that until the fires are contained and extinguished, of course, but history does provide some insights.
Foremost, the community will be OK.
Consider: Two months after nearly 3 million gallons of toxic waste spilled into the Animas River, sales tax revenues, including the city’s lodger’s tax, were rising dramatically – 16.3 percent for the lodger’s tax. Tourists were still coming in October, despite international coverage of the mustard-yellow river.
Sure, they were calling and asking months and years after the August 2015 spill if the river was still yellow. But when assured things had returned to normal, they booked their rafting or fishing trips.
This not meant to minimize the losses some businesses suffer during and after a disaster. It can be tough for a small business to hold on when no one is walking through the door. And some might not survive if too many bad things happen in too short a timeframe.
The Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, which has aroused plenty of loathing and love during this fire, is losing millions during its shutdown at the height of tourist season. Just as it did during a 37-day shutdown during the 2002 Missionary Ridge Fire. It survived then, and it will now.
Interestingly, in the wake of the 2002 fire, the train invested more than $1 million in fire prevention and new equipment. This time, as investigators consider whether an ember from the train might have started the 416 Fire, owner Al Harper has vowed to again review what the train can do to prevent fires.
Its shutdown during both fires, though, had a huge impact on Silverton, which depends on those trainloads of tourists getting off the train from Durango. The recent multi-day closure of U.S. Highway 550 between Hermosa and Molas Pass – meaning no through traffic from Durango to Silverton – was a double whammy.
The community is trying to help – residents of the region have suggested day trips to Silverton, or taking out-of-town visitors there for shopping.
In Durango, there’s also a loud drum beat for supporting local businesses. Now that the San Juan National Forest and BLM lands are reopening, that is likely to get louder.
That might be the best thing that can happen, according to tourism experts. At the recent SoCo Tourism Summit in Pueblo, state and local tourism experts repeatedly sent the message: Promoting each other helps everyone. We’re all in this together.