Train riders depart the D&SNG train recently. The annual fireworks displays in Durango and Silverton have been cancelled this year due to fire danger. The cancellations have put the fate of the Independence Day Express, a special Fourth of July trip by train to watch the Silverton fireworks, in limbo. DSNGR officials haven’t made a final decision to cancel, but say it appears likely. Elsewhere in town, tourism officials say the fires have not yet had a huge impact on visitation./Photo by Steve Eginoire

Up in smoke

Fires put damper on 4th fireworks, could hurt uptick in sales tax revenues
by Tracy Chamberlin

The city tallied its May receipts to find the bottom line was better than last year. At the same time, firefighters were cutting fire lines all over the state, but hopes are one hot spot won’t put out the other.

Sales tax revenues for Durango were up 4.3 percent in May over 2011 totals, according to Bob Kunkel, executive director for the Business Improvement District. The sum so far this year is 5 percent above last year’s. As for the lodger’s tax, it’s up 12.5 percent for the month and 8.6 percent for the year.

And Durango isn’t the only town enjoying the bump in tourism. MTRip, the Mountain Travel Research Program, released a report stating summer bookings across the West are on the rise.

On-the-books occupancy for May through October was up 15.3 percent from 2011, but the biggest jump is for the month of August, with an increase of 18.9 percent.

This is the season that typically sees an uptick, but with numbers like this outperforming last year it means that more people are coming to visit. And the biggest event to hit Durango, the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, is still two months away.

However, as summer tourism season was gearing up, so was fire season. The first fire in the region, the Little Sand Fire, was ignited by lightning northwest of Pagosa Springs on May 13. The blaze has since grown to more than 22,000 acres with 31 percent containment.

About a month later, the Weber Fire started south of Mancos on Fri., June 22. It has grown to more than 9,000 acres with 20 percent containment as of Wednesday. Speculations about the cause are circulating, but the official word is that it’s still under investigation.

The following day, a blaze began at Highway 550 near the New Mexico border, closing off the main corridor to Farmington. The Stateline Fire, held to 350 acres, was 80 percent contained and in mop-up mode as of Tuesday. 4 The cause, like the Weber Fire, is still under investigation.

And just when it seemed Durango was surrounded, another situation flared up Mon., June 25, at Chimney Rock. Caused by a downed power line, the fire received quick response, and crews contained it the same day at just 10 acres. Although the situation was under control in short order, the Chimney Rock Archeological Area was evacuated.

Area reservation and tourist centers say they have been getting phone calls about the fires or air quality, but so far the cancellation rate is low.
When asked if the blazes could affect the rise in city revenues Kunkel was hesitant to speculate. “It’s hard to say, it depends which way the wind blows,” he said. For now, he thinks they’re doing OK.

Ann Klein, public relations specialist for the Durango Area Tourism Office, said so far they haven’t experienced any cancellations but are getting the occasional inquiry about conditions.

Kim Oyler, director of communications at Durango Mountain Resort, said they are enjoying that summer surge and reservations up 10 to 15 percent over 2011. So far, they, too, have fielded just a couple calls about the conditions.

Gateway Reservations has also been getting inquiries; however, the most common question visitors are asking is about the cancellation policy.
Kori Samson, sales and marketing coordinator for Gateway, said some families are concerned with air quality. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment issued a smoke advisory for the Little Sand and Weber fires on Tuesday.

Light to heavy smoke is expected around Little Sand, with moderate to heavy patches of smoke near the Weber. The advisory recommends that if visibility is less than 5 miles, outdoor activity and exercise should be curtailed, particularly for people with asthma and other respiratory conditions.
Samson said Gateway did have one cancellation for a group scheduled to ride the Independence Train to Silverton for the Fourth of July celebration and fireworks. The guests heard rumors that the fireworks display in Silverton had been cancelled.

It turns out they were right.

The Town of Silverton decided Monday night to cancel the fireworks display, according to Anita Steck, Deputy Clerk for the Town of Silverton. The town does still plan to host a variety of other events, like the “It’s a Grand Old Flag” parade, Ducky Derby and International Rhubarb Festival.

Even though the Fourth of July is a high time for tourists in Silverton, conditions are too dry. A stretch of severe drought is crawling across the West, covering 61 percent of the state, and the Animas River has slowed to a trickle, flowing at around 200 cfs in Silverton and less than 400 in Durango.
Currently, La Plata County and the San Juan National Forest are under fire restrictions and a statewide fire ban is in effect, making even law enforcement-approved firework celebrations few and far between.

“The greatest concern I have for a wildfire is the use of fireworks,” said Butch Knowlton, emergency management director for La Plata County, in a June 20 press release.

The fireworks display isn’t the only thing Silverton tourists could miss out on. The fate of the Independence Day Express, a special Fourth of July trip by the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to watch the Silverton fireworks display, could rest in the hands of the small mining town.
Jeff Jackson, senior vice president and chief operating officer for DSNGR, said train officials haven’t made a final decision to cancel, but in the wake of the Silverton decision, it appears likely. The company plans to try to appease guests with other rides or options.

“We want to accommodate the economic engine … but we don’t want to cross a line,” Jackson said.

As for Durango, the city sent out a press release Wednesday, also cancelling its annual display. Even in 2002, the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire, the city went ahead with a donwsized fireworks show.

But with only a few showers in the forecast and several large fires throughout the state, crews and equipment could be in short supply next week.
Durango Fire and Rescue Chief Dan Noonan said the biggest concern is if people putting on their own celebrations, inflaming an already combustible situation.