For anyone who cares about Colorado’s tourism industry, the terse headline Wednesday morning on CNN.com — followed by many millions of people online — sent the one message everyone had hoped to avoid this summer.
“You don’t want to be here: Colorado burns”
And as if that weren’t enough, this second headline followed:
“Fire threatens Royal Gorge area”
Just as the state, and in particular our Pikes Peak region, had geared up for a successful start to the 2013 summer season, all that optimism disappeared within a few incredible hours Tuesday afternoon, dampening the hopes of making up for the tough times caused by major fires last summer.
As temperatures climbed toward 100 in Colorado Springs and set records for the second consecutive day, we heard of relative humidity readings of 1 percent — the lowest possible — for the first time in memory. And suddenly, within an hour, sparks turned into infernos just northeast of Colorado Springs in Black Forest and, to our southwest, around Royal Gorge spreading to near Cañon City.
For our economy, it’s impossible to conceive of a more destructive one-two punch combination, just as we were hoping that the calm passage of time would help unaffected outsiders forget last year’s Waldo Canyon blaze.
That memory remains so fresh for those of us who live here. But as we’ve seen so many times in today’s never-ending 24/7 media world, even many major disasters can slip quickly through the cracks of public awareness. We don’t even think anymore about Superstorm Sandy last fall in New Jersey or, going back further, the horrific tornadoes in Joplin, Mo., or Tuscaloosa, Ala.
But now, Colorado Springs returns to the headlines, and at the worst possible time. You can be sure, many thousands of families across the nation’s midsection, from Minnesota to Texas, have been planning for midsummer driving vacations to Colorado — and, for many, Colorado Springs.
Now, maybe not. Or, let’s be realistic, probably not.
Several other thoughts began emerging as the details began coming of many Black Forest homes destroyed, not to mention multiple small businesses.
We can expect another round of stories now on families who have lost everything, on businesses being decimated, and whether owners will decide to rebuild in the same locations or move elsewhere. We also can count on another unplanned — and unwanted, at least in this way — windfall for the homebuilding industry, as has been occurring in Mountain Shadows the past year.
As for the tourism impact, as long as we can avoid any more major fires this summer, the annual events such as the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Rocky Mountain State Games and Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon should be unaffected. But we can’t be so sure about the tourist business that matters most: those thousands of vacationers driving this way. It’s so easy for them to divert elsewhere — especially if, let’s say, the Royal Gorge is closed indefinitely, as would appear likely at this point.
Our only choice now is to hope for the best — but brace for the worst. Our hot and dry summer of 2013, as predicted by the weather forecasters, has only just begun. And if a few scorching days in early June could produce this much damage, we’d rather not think about what July and August might bring.