Tourism in Fremont County, and in much of the state, took an economic hit after the Iron Mountain Fire moved fast and furious in the Copper Gulch area after igniting on June 2, 2002.
The fire ultimately covered 4,439 acres in five days and left 106 structures in ashes. Less than a week later, on June 8, the Hayman Fire northwest of Colorado Springs erupted, covering 138,114 acres and causing six deaths. It caused nearly $40 million in firefighting costs, burned 133 homes and forced the evacuation of 5,340 people.
But it wasn’t the actual fires that contributed to the decrease in visitors to the Fremont County area. It allegedly was former Gov. Bill Owens’ comment that “all of Colorado is burning today,” which sparked some heated response within the tourism industry.
“It certainly was a comment that resounded across the state,” said Andy Neinas, owner and operator of Echo Canyon River Expeditions. “I think it certainly had an impact on many of us because it was an inaccurate statement about what was going on in Colorado.”
Neinas said unfortunately, he vividly recalls the day the Iron Mountain Fire started more than 10 years ago.
“I remember watching it happen and the column of smoke that just was very, very dark,” he said. But Echo Canyon didn’t miss a single day of business because of the fires.
“We got a few calls from people asking about the fires, but it really was not that big of a deal for us,” he said. “Our industry was not evacuated the way the bridge was.”
The fire command asked Mike Bandera, general manager of the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park, to evacuate and close the park that afternoon of June 2, but it was open for business again the following day.
“But people did not know that we were open the next day,” Bandera said. “All they had heard was that the bridge was closed.”
Attendance dropped by 30 to 50 percent per day for at least two weeks.
“Then the other fires came on and all of the negative publicity that came with those fires affected our attendance for the rest of the year,” he said. “Overall attendance was down about five percent.”
Bus tours cancelled their trips and local campgrounds also began to receive cancellations.
“The overall negative publicity and the smoke hanging and the smell caused people to cancel their vacations to Colorado,” Bandera said.
The following year didn’t seem promising for tourism with the beginning of the Iraq War in March of 2003.
“The day the war started, we started having the same affect — 30 to 50 percent down per day for several weeks,” he said. “It ended up affecting us that whole year.”
Between the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the war, the wildfires and the downturn in the economy, Bandera said those years were brutal on tourism not only in the state, but also worldwide.
Neinas said the seasons between 2002 and 2009 were profitable for rafting, with 2009 taking a bit of a hit because of the economy. He said 2010 and 2011 were very strong seasons for the commercial river industry as a whole. Bandera said 2009, 2010 and 2011 were the best years ever for the Royal Gorge.
Bandera and Neinas said the 2012 season is off to a great start.
“We’re very optimistic about 2012,” Neinas said. “We’re going to have great family-class water levels this year.”
Currently, revenue is up 17 percent from last year at the Royal Gorge, and attendance is up six percent.
“We’re heading toward another record-breaking year,” Bandera said. “It seems like the gasoline prices are cooperating and the vacationers are out and about and traveling at a good rate.”