Tourism Declines as a Result of Wildfire in Big Sur


Lodge managers and cafe owners along California’s dramatic Big Sur coast were looking Friday at a summer of jittery guests and cancelled bookings after fire officials warned that crews will likely be battling a wildfire raging in steep, forested ridges just to the north for another month.

Big Sur establishments were already reporting as much as a 50 percent drop in business, said Stan Russell, executive director of the chamber of commerce – even though the only signs of the blaze were fire trucks and an occasional whiff of smoke along the famously winding and scenic Highway 1.

Normally, this time of year “is when everybody really runs at 100 percent,” Russell said about tourism in the area. “This is when we make our money.”

The week-old blaze a few miles to the north of Big Sur had been blamed for one death – a bulldozer operator working the fire line – destroyed 41 homes and burned 48 square miles (124 square kilometers).

Flames were concentrated in forested ridges above the summer fog line along the coast. Many patches of fire were in areas too steep to be reached, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection said.

More than 4,200 firefighters were battling the wildfire that fire officials expect to linger until the end of August.

Highway 1 remained open, but signs along the narrow route warned travelers that all state parks in the area were closed because of the fire.

At the luxury Post Ranch Inn, where clifftop rooms that open to sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean go for more than $2,000 a night, general manager Kevin Geanides was offering refunds to guests canceling stays because of the wildfire. Business was off about one-fourth, he estimated.

Smoke was thick along the Big Sur coast for the first days of the blaze. With a shift in the wind, “the past few days, if you were standing on our ridge, you wouldn’t even know there was a fire,” Geanides said. Other residents and travelers agreed.

Hotel workers reviewed emergency evacuation plans as a precaution, despite the blue skies along the coast.

At the Ventana Inn & Spa, another luxury lodge on the redwood-lined coast, front-desk worker George Ochoa reckoned the fire was about five miles away.

But Ochoa knew, “everything could change within the next hour or 30 minutes,” he said. “We’re ready.”

Fire officials previously ordered at least 350 residents to evacuate homes that were closer to the flames.

Tom and Donna Huntington, both 65, and three-decade residents of the hard-hit town of Palo Colorado, fled their home on the first day of the fire. They have been staying with friends and at a Red Cross shelter at a school.

“It’s a heartbreaker. I could cry right now,” Tom Huntington said. “I’m so lucky I didn’t lose my house. And I know some people that have.”

Other evacuees included at least four people who acknowledged they had been growing marijuana in the area, Monterey County sheriff’s Sgt. Kathy Palazzolo said.

Other wildfires burned elsewhere in the West.

On the outskirts of Los Angeles, crews had stopped the spread of a 61-square-mile (157-square kilometer) blaze that killed one man and destroyed 18 homes.

Fire officials said that fire was 85 percent contained eight days after it broke out in suburban Santa Clarita and spread into the mountainous Angeles National Forest.

Authorities have not determined the cause of either fire in California.

In Idaho, a wildfire crossed a state highway and threatened a backcountry yurt outpost popular among winter recreationists.

In Wyoming, favorable weather allowed firefighters to take the offensive against a wildfire threatening seasonal homes. The fire in Shoshone National Forest has burned about 19 square miles (49 sq. kilometers).

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