For weeks, thick smoke filled the skies over Lake Tahoe, emptying the normally bustling towns that surround its alpine blue waters on waning summer weekends. Restaurants were closed, campgrounds cleaned up, and boats remained anchored or moored along the shore.
The Caldor fire has forced residents and visitors to flee, raising questions about the future of wilderness playgrounds in the American West at a time of escalating wildfires. Mountain towns and transient communities depend on vacationers and adventurers who will spend money on outdoor experiences and scenic views. But climate change could put those profits – and the local economies that depend on them – at risk.
“You start to see people canceling trips, concerts canceled, all outdoor activities canceled, forests closed, parks closed,” said Carl Ribaudo, a South Lake Tahoe resident who also advises the industry. local tourist attraction, which earns around $ 3. billion a year. Ribaudo fears that increasingly fierce wildfires threaten not only a single tourist season, but the future of Lake Tahoe as a vacation destination.
“There is a longer term impact that I don’t think everyone sees yet,” he said, “and this is how fires are changing consumer behavior as tourists start to think about future summer trips or summer experiences. “
The massive Caldor Fire occurred a few miles from South Lake Tahoe, a popular destination town home to over 20,000 people. Tourism, the lifeblood of the region, was on the minds of some evacuees even as they eagerly awaited the fate of their city. The owners of Sierra-at-Tahoe, a popular ski resort, optimistically announced this week that most of their infrastructure has been spared and that they will be back soon to prepare for winter guests.
“We can come back,” John Rice, chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We will be returning to celebrate our 75th anniversary with our Sierra family this winter. “
But from young families to retirees, many in the city are still reeling from the experience. “To see these people come from my community – they work in the tourism industry and their lives, their jobs, their families, their grandchildren, have all been disrupted,” said Ribaudo. “They didn’t know what the next step was or if they would even have a job.”
Even now that most of the dangers have passed for South Lake Tahoe, there is still a lot to clean up. Ski lifts should be tested for safety. Ash always decorates roofs and firewood piles. And, further into the mountains, structures that have not been spared will need to be assessed.
He noted that in the short term, tourism will surely suffer a loss. He’s convinced people will come back eventually, but fears the perception of places like Tahoe will change soon. People can be increasingly likely to spend their precious vacation money where there is less chance of smoke ruining their trip.
There are also concerns that gateway communities located near California’s National Forests, all of which have been closed by order of the US Forest Service, will be affected for the second year in a row. The agency shut down sites on a preventive basis just before Labor Day until September 17 due to the high fire risk. Samantha Reho, a spokesperson for the agency, said the decision was the last officials wanted to make, especially during a generally busy holiday weekend.
Reho said there is no certainty as to whether orders like this will happen in the future, season after season.
“We remain optimistic but we must also remain realistic,” she said. “We are paying attention to climate change and this is not going in the right direction. “
Dyana Kelley, president of CampCalNow, the trade association for campground owners and operators, said even areas of California where there are no fires are seeing cancellations. The Golden State always has an array of outdoor options away from the smoke and flames. National parks, which operate under different jurisdiction from national forests, always welcome visitors.
“There is a perception when there is a fire, that all of California is on fire,” Kelley said. “We are seeing people deciding to cancel reservations just because they are not sure of an area.”
When people cancel reservations at private campgrounds due to smoke or fear, Kelley said owners usually pay the cost. Insurance claims cannot be made on losses that are not directly caused by the fires. Other businesses, such as restaurants in gateway communities or outdoor tourism companies, are also affected, especially in areas near closed national forests.
“You can’t even hike,” she says. “It’s a huge, huge blow to the areas that are working or are still working.” The fires that are burning now also have the potential to impact areas in the long term, as the infrastructure, trails and stunning scenery that lure visitors into ever-growing burn scars will need time to recover. “The attraction is to sit among the trees and the wildlife,” Kelley said. “Are people going to go if the campground is rebuilt but everything around it is burnt down?” As a lifetime camper myself, I don’t know.
In the quaint mountain town of Quincy, the ever-burning Dixie fire has been a constant threat this summer. Shelley Hunter, a board member for the Feather River Tourism Association and owner of the Quincy Feather Bed Inn, says her typical guests – festival-goers, mountain bikers or outdoor enthusiasts – have been replaced by first responders and displaced residents in as neighboring towns such as Greenville were burned to the ground.
“We have personally experienced cancellations after cancellations again this year,” she said. “This year could turn out to be worse than last year – and I thought last year was bad.”
Hunter is concerned about the area’s ability to attract visitors even after the flames are out. Members of the local workforce are leaving town, some driven out after too many close calls, others who have already lost their homes.
“It seems like our summers are getting robbed,” Hunter said. “We just have winter, spring and fire season.”
She also thought about leaving. For weeks, she watched the pyrocumulous clouds build up on the horizon. There were times when she and her neighbors sat in lawn chairs outside her inn, watching the fire approaching on the ridge above, as evacuation alerts rang on her phone. It’s life in the shadow of the Dixie fire. “It reminds me of the dust bowl,” she said. “You think, why haven’t these people left sooner? They stayed there and everything was dusty. But here we are holding on, fire after fire.
She’s holding up for now too. There is still hope that people will return once the fire is out, seeking what remains of the splendor that makes this place special. “This is where people come to get away from it all,” she says. “It will always be true. “