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Campground operators from the Sierra Nevada to the Rocky Mountains are not only battling the largest wildfires Arizona and Colorado had ever seen, but the national media frenzy did as much damage to the RV park and campground season in some areas as the flames themselves.
Currently, at least 200 public and private campgrounds had been evacuated or shut down across the West, as wildfires scorched vast tracts of mountain and high desert countryside in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Utah and Wyoming, as well as portions of Nevada and Idaho.
Several public and private campgrounds reportedly sustained damage as a result of the fires. But little conclusive information can be obtained now because both public and private campground operators had been evacuated from fire zones.
“We’re not allowed in yet,” said Lynn Welnick, owner of the 68-site Elk Pine RV Resort in Overgaard, Ariz., which was damaged by the 467,000-acre Rodeo fire. Authorities had kept Welnick away from her campground for nearly two weeks. But she learned from a guest, who had managed to talk his way by authorities to retrieve his car, that her office and the first eight spaces of her campground had been damaged by the fire. “I’m getting people calling from all over the country canceling their reservations because of the fire,” Welnick said.
Junior McMillan, manager of the 121-site Blue Springs RV & Trailer Park near Vallecito Reservoir, Colo., about 20 miles east of Durango, had a similar experience. He said his campground escaped physical damage from the Mission Ridge fire near Durango. But his summer business has been devastated. “Everybody is afraid to come to Colorado,” McMillan explained. “We’ll just try to clean up and get things going again. We had all of July and August booked. Hopefully, we can salvage some of it.”
While private Vallecito Reservoir area campgrounds were forced to evacuate, many of its guests simply relocated to other campgrounds in the picturesque pine- and aspen-covered mountains of southwest Colorado.
Jerry Ford, owner of Riverside RV Park, outside of Bayfield, Colo., about 18 miles east of Durango, said many Vallecito Reservoir campers were relocating to his 6,900-foot elevation campground to avoid the fire, which he said produced 400- and 500-foot flames as it burned a 50,000-acre area at the 7,500- to 8,000-foot level that had not seen a major fire in 150 years.
“They’re coming down here to get hooked up,” Ford said. “A lot of them have paid their full summer rent and they were evacuated. You feel bad taking full price, so you drop your rates for them. They want to continue their vacation, but now the smoke is getting hard on them, especially the older people.”
In Arizona, public park closures included Apache-Sitgreaves, South Kaibab, Coronado, Coconino, Prescott and Tonto National Forests. Pike National Forest, southwest of Denver, Colo., also remained closed as did three U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the Walker Canyon and Desert Creek areas on the California-Nevada state line about 60 miles south of Lake Tahoe.
In the big picture, however, most private campgrounds appeared to have been spared the worst of the devastation, according to Jim Calfee, of Jim Calfee Insurance, a major U.S. campground insurer located in Broomfield, Colo.
“We have seven of our campgrounds which have been evacuated,” he said. “There has been minor damage, but we have not lost any structures of the ones we insure.”
Meanwhile, several campground owners in Colorado and Arizona said smoke was prompting some guests to leave, even if they were 15 miles or more from an actual fire. “It is smoky,” conceded Bernie Morgan, owner of the 92-site K-Bar RV Resort near Show Low, Ariz., which is about 15 to 20 miles from a 120,000-acre fire. “We’ve had a lot of our summer people pack up and leave, people who would normally stay the full summer.”
Smoke even found its way into the Denver area.
“Even though we’re 35 miles north of the fires, we have had some cancellations due to smoke,” said Cheryl Bysong, manager of the 29-space Deluxe RV Park, a city park located 4.5 miles north of downtown Denver. “One day,” she said, “we had such heavy smoke and such a heavy odor that you would have felt that the fire was in the next lot.”
Campground operators contend that the news media exaggerated the size and scope of fires as well as the impact on Colorado in general. “Media hysteria is killing us,” said Bob Beverly, manager of the 100-space Alpen-Rose RV Park in Durango, which experienced a series of cancellations after repeated national media reports about a major fire in the Durango area. Beverly’s campground, about 2.5 miles north of Durango, was about 10 miles from the fire.
Before the fire broke out in mid-June, Beverly had experienced an unusually strong spring that included his busiest May ever. But all that changed as news reports of the Durango fire and other wildfires spread across the nation.
“It’s just been awful,” said Jane Bachman, who owns KOA campgrounds in Cripple Creek and Royal Gorge, Colo. “We’re getting numerous calls asking whether we’re on fire or in any danger. It’s been so negative. We were looking forward to having a better summer than last year. But now I’m not sure if that’s going to happen.”
While many campground operators directed their ire at the news media, some also criticized Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, who at one point declared, “All of Colorado is on fire.” Owens later used the term “nuclear winter” to describe the Hayman fire west of Denver, which, had consumed more than 100,000 acres and destroyed more than 50 buildings.
“He’s making it sound really bad,” said Dorothy Shadrick, executive director of the Colorado Campground and Lodging Owners Association. “There are a lot of parks that aren’t affected by the fire at all.”