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Colorado town struggles to get visitors back after wildfires

While firefighters continue to battle raging fires in the forests around South Fork, Colo., longtime visitors to the popular tourist area are hoping their vacations don’t go up in smoke.

“We were on the other side of town and the next thing you know, they were coming through, saying, ‘You gotta get out, you gotta get out’,” said Leilani Harden of Victoria, Texas, who has visited the area every summer for the last five years.

With the town under an ongoing evacuation order, she and her husband, Ralph, packed up their RV and set up camp a few miles away.

“We’ve seen a lot of smoke but also a lot of beautiful sights,” she said. “It’s been unbelievable.”

For local businesses, the challenge will be to convince other visitors that those beautiful sights will remain after the smoke has cleared and the so-called West Fork Fire Complex has been completely extinguished.

As of Wednesday morning, the blaze had burned 81,331 acres. Authorities were hopeful that decreasing winds would keep it from encroaching on the town itself.

“Today is a lot better than last week,” said Bob Mason, owner of the Wolf Creek Ski Lodge, just south of town. “There’s smoke but the air quality certainly isn’t so bad that you couldn’t be here.”

Still, with much of the town evacuated, business is suffering.

“This time of year, we’d be at about 50 to 75 percent full,” said Mason, who has spent the last few days calling guests to tell them the lodge is closed until the evacuation order is lifted.

“Right now, we’re working on people coming for the 4th of July, which is a huge time here,” Mason said. “I’d say 75 percent still want to come — a lot of them have been coming here for years — but we’ve probably had about 20 to 25 percent cancel.”

While it’s too early to tell what impact the wildfires will have in the long run, recent history suggests that the area will eventually rebound. As evidence, tourism officials point to the massive Waldo Canyon fire that threatened Colorado Springs a year ago this month.

That blaze forced the evacuation of approximately 32,000 people, destroyed almost 350 homes and killed two people. Until the now-contained Black Forest fire, which erupted earlier this month, it was considered the most destructive fire in state history.

And the Waldo Canyon Fire clearly took a toll on the region’s tourism industry as popular local attractions, such as Garden of the Gods and the Pikes Peak Highway, were forced to close. As tourists stayed away, July revenue from the city’s bed-tax plunged, dropping 16 percent from the year before, said Chelsy Murphy, director of communications for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.

However, the city fought back, using a combination of reserve funds, private donations and federal grants totaling $300,000 to launch a “Welcome Back” campaign to promote the city.

“Before the fire, the city anticipated being down 3.5 percent for the year,” Murphy said. “When they totaled the collections for the year, we were actually down just 0.45 percent. That was a very positive thing to see.”

Whether a similar scenario will play out in South Fork won’t be known for months but, if nothing else, the town stands to benefit from the commitment of visitors who have been coming to the area year after year.

“My husband loves the fishing, there’s golf and, of course, the scenery around here is just gorgeous,” said Harden, who has previously traveled in fire country.

“We’ve experienced fires in Montana and in other places in Colorado and it doesn’t really interfere that much,” she said. “You can still find the beauty.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.