Wildfires Spoil Vacationers' Plans


Tuesday, August 22nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) — One of Yellowstone National Park's favorite gateways has reopened after a four-day shutdown but it's not in time to salvage many vacations.

A fire that threatened to edge into Yellowstone was one of many raging across the West that have clouded not only the usually sparkling mountain air but also many people's plans to relax in America's oldest national park.

Wildfires have burned more than 5 million acres this year in the nation's worst fire season in decades. Hundreds of homes have burned, and thousands of people have been driven out.

The fires have driven campers from their tents and RVs and closed wilderness areas in Yellowstone and other places to hikers and berry-pickers. Smoke has obstructed the view of the Grand Tetons.

Some or all of Montana's Bitterroot River and the Frank Church River and the Main and Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho have been closed to fishing, kayaking and rafting.

``We've definitely seen a drop in numbers'' in the Bitterroot Valley, said Shannon Montoya with the regional tourism agency in Missoula, Mont. ``Of course they would — there's no hiking, no camping and no water sports.''

Tired from a day's sightseeing in Yellowstone, Ann Lewis and her two children returned to the Flagg Ranch Resort between Yellowstone and the majestic Grand Tetons last Tuesday, only to be ordered to evacuate because of an approaching wildfire. The San Bernardino, Calif., woman and about 500 other Flagg guests and employees ended up scrambling.

Although the road from the Tetons to Yellowstone reopened Monday, the ranch remained closed.

Lewis spent hours trying to get her family's belongings from the resort and finding a motel room. Eventually she found one in Jackson, about 60 miles away.

``It was a nightmare,'' Lewis said.

Other frustrated tourists crowded area lodges as they rushed to change their vacation plans. Some worried about cancellation fees. Others grumbled about having to drive more than 100 miles out of their way because Yellowstone's south entrance was closed by the fire.

``I was in Jackson a few weeks ago and saw blue mountains, pink skies and a grizzly running across a field,'' said Ann Ezell, who worked at a campground this summer at the Flagg Ranch. ``I ran into town the other day and just saw the smoke and gray. It was enough to break your heart.''

There are no firm figures on the financial effect on tourism in Montana and Idaho, the two states hit hardest this year.

``The reality is, there's going to be some effect. We won't know the ultimate effect until probably a couple of months after it's over,'' said Matthew Cohn, head of Travel Montana, the state tourism promotion agency.

But fires bring in money as well as drive it away, he added. They attract armies of firefighters and suppliers, news reporters and Red Cross workers, who spend money on food, lodging and supplies.

Glacier National Park in northern Montana had only one fire in a remote area last week. But it saw visits drop after Montana Gov. Marc Racicot's statewide disaster declaration and announcement that 6 million to 8 million acres of fire-threatened lands — mostly in the southwestern part of the state — would be closed.

``They hear the words `fire' and `Montana' and think everything is closed up,'' said park spokesman David Eaker. ``We've been doing damage control to snuff out some of those rumors.''

Idaho Commerce Director Gary Mahn said tourism in the closed areas could result in $20 million in lost business. That is just a fraction of the state's $2 billion tourism industry, but Mahn said it has a ripple effect through the economy.

And the Northern Rockies states are approaching the start of the all-important fall hunting seasons, which bring in thousands of big-spending sportsmen each year. The fire danger could result in the closing of some areas to hunting.

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On the Net:

National Interagency Fire Center: http://www.nifc.gov