Beyond the fires: Businesses, tourism consider how to respond

Filed under: Daily News | Tags:,

BCBJ_BFfire_1By Amy Gillentine and Marija B. Vader

As firefighters struggle to extinguish flames that erupted Tuesday and tore through the Black Forest and Royal Gorge Park, tourism officials and business leaders are trying to figure out the next steps.

“We’re following our crisis communications plan,” said Amy Long, vice president of marketing and partnership at the Colorado Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is responsible for marketing both the Springs and attractions in surrounding areas.

“Right now, we’re just trying to be a source, trying to get accurate information out there for people who are coming into the city,” she said.

But for some business owners, their effects are more immediate.

Such is the case for Black Forest resident and Realtor Mary Watson, who was reached while evacuating her horses, dogs, cat and donkey.

“There are a couple houses I’m about to close on that might not be there,” she said, adding that other homes located inside the evacuation zone are under her listing.

Business also took a turn for Black Forest Bed & Breakfast owner Susie Wilson, who did not want to take any chances and evacuated all her guests even though her business is only located within the pre-evacuation area.

“I hope and pray we can get back in,” she said, adding that a wedding is scheduled there Friday. Last year, seven families evacuated from the Waldo Canyon Fire stayed at her B&B.

“I’ve been concerned about this for 30 years,” Wilson said.

While Sheriff Terry Maketa was giving an unofficial estimate that as many as 100 structures had burned in Black Forest, the Bureau of Land Management reported three structures had been lost in the six-square-mile wildfire that surrounded the Royal Gorge area.

The Royal Gorge Bridge drew 310,000 visitors last year — a large percentage of whom stayed in Colorado Springs hotels, according to Mike Bandera, general manager of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park. Royal Gorge’s annual revenue approaches $85 million, with most people visiting between Memorial Day and Labor Day. With the bridge threatened by the 3,000-acre wildfire, and reports of adjacent buildings being destroyed, evacuations earlier this week leave the entire attraction’s immediate future in doubt.

“We can’t even speculate how long it will be closed,” said CVB spokeswoman Chelsy Murphy. “But until we know, we can direct people elsewhere. We have more than 55 area attractions to direct visitors to.”

Fighting the perception that the entire state is burning will be a challenge for the days ahead, both officials said. As of Wednesday morning, their focus was on getting accurate information to people quickly.

“We’re not a primary source,” Long said. ‘But we are a source, particular for the meeting businesses. We’re working on letting people know which roads are open, which events are canceled, which attractions are closed.”

The rest of it — tallying the damage and developing a new marketing plan for regional tourism — will come later.

“Right now, it’s about safety,” Long said. “That’s what we’re focusing on.”

For Black Forest businesses, the focus was elsewhere — on their homes and livelihoods in the path of the blaze that had already blackened more than 8,000 acres as of Wednesday afternoon, moving so quickly that some people had mere minutes to escape.

“We managed to gather our important belongings,” said Tim Robertson, a media consultant who lost his home in the fire. “And we were able to leave with about 10 minutes to spare.”

Other reports continue to fly via social media. Individuals are reporting explosions of both propane tanks and the gas station near The Pinery in Black Forest. There are also confirmed reports of damage to the property surrounding both Edith Wolford Elementary and School of the Woods in Academy District 20.

But mostly, people are waiting for news of their homes and businesses, as county officials started surveying properties early Wednesday morning.

“It’s unnerving,” said Dave Wallace, a broker and licensed builder at Lone Pine Properties. His office is at 11590 Black Forest Road, near where the fire started. Wallace lives in the Black Forest but outside the evacuation area. He said he’s been “lucky so far.”