Press "Enter" to skip to content

Big fire? Big deal

Article by Marcia Darnell

Tourism – August 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

MAYBE COLORADANS have become jaded. Maybe we put implicit trust in smoke jumpers. Or maybe it’s just a pervasive case of denial-itis. Whatever the cause, the Mato Vega fire in June caused little disruption to the money flow in the eastern San Luis Valley.

That’s surprising, considering that U.S. 160 over La Veta Pass is the main artery between the SLV and the money-toting day-trippers from the Pueblo-Colorado Springs area. The closure of the pass for several days in summer should have been a disaster. It wasn’t. In some cases, it was a boon.

Both the Fort Garland Motor Inn and The Lodge Motel in Fort Garland were full for the duration. “There were a couple of reasons,” said Chris Rajkiewicz, owner of the Motor Inn. “We had people staying who were working on the fire, we had a few refugees who left their homes, and we had Ride the Rockies bikers who couldn’t get a room in Alamosa.”

Linda Gabe, co-owner of The Lodge Motel, said the same. “We had an upsurge in business as a result of the fire,” she said. “A few refugees and a few drivers stuck here because they just didn’t want to take the long way around.”

Restaurants in Blanca-Fort Garland saw a drop in business, but busied themselves helping the firefighters

Luisa Sena, owner of Lu’s Main Street Cafe in Blanca, said she saw a drop of $1,000 a day. “But I was helping feed a lot of [firefighters and refugees] through the community center,” she said philosophically. “Some paid, some were free. I saw a lot of volunteering and I learned how a community comes together to help each other.” She said her business, which is mostly people driving through to or from La Veta Pass, picked up again immediately when the pass re-opened.

At the Old West Cafe in Fort Garland, co-owner Jeannette Teher said business “was a little slower, but OK,” during the closure.

Business at the Fort Garland Museum suffered more. “We slowed to a crawl,” said Rick Manzanares, the museum’s director. “Our attendance for the month was down 15 to 20 percent over last year.”

The museum was featured on the Denver TV show, “Colorado and Company,” and attendance was rising just a week before the fire.

“We’re recovering nicely, though,” Manzanares added. “We had a good Fourth.”

The new passenger train between Alamosa and La Veta wasn’t scheduled to run during the fire, so there was no loss of revenue. The train was slated to haul freight that week, and did so. According to Debra Goodman, executive director of the Alamosa County Chamber of Commerce, the fire never got within 7 miles of the train tracks. Passenger service resumed on schedule.

“I don’t know whether we had a drop in rider numbers,” she said, “since this is the first season and there’s nothing to compare it to.” She said she heard no complaints from local merchants about the fire cutting into business. She said the “spotty coverage” of the fire on the Denver TV news broadcasts may have played a role.

Clancy Spicer, proprietor of the Inn of the Rio Grande in Alamosa, said business at his establishment was about the same. “They put up a lot of firefighters here,” he said. “And the fact is that highway runs both ways, so when you close one end, you get traffic from the other end.”

In addition to the delayed drivers trying to head east, Spicer had the Ride the Rockies administrative staff staying at his hotel. His in-house restaurant saw no drop in revenue that week.

No difference.

This blasé attitude is nothing new. In 2002, during the Million Fire near South Fork, the Creede Repertory Theatre posted record attendance numbers. (Driving through South Fork is necessary to get to Creede, unless you go through Lake City. Or take a helicopter.)

So maybe we’re inured to risk. Maybe we think recreation is worth a little danger. Maybe we’re jaded.

Or maybe we foolishly think that fire will never really reach us.

Marcia Darnell lives, writes, and watches fire reports in the San Luis Valley. If she has to evacuate, her cats rank above her computer, and she just may miss a couple of deadlines. (Sorry, Ed.)