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Western Forest Fires – An Overplayed Crisis?

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September 10, 2013 by   - () Leave a Comment

Forest fires threatened campgrounds across the U.S. West this season. Photo courtesy of U.S. Forest Service

The horrific wildfires that scorched over 230 square miles of forest land near Yosemite National Park in California and more than 150 square miles in Central Idaho in August were the most dramatic of hundreds of wildfires that are making this year one of the worst U.S. fire seasons on record.

On Aug. 26, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, 50 major uncontained wildfires were burning throughout the West, including California, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. More than 19,000 firefighters were fighting the fires.

In California, more than 3,000 firefighters battled the Rim Fire as it burned just outside of Yosemite. Yosemite Lakes RV Resort at Hardin Flat, an Equity LifeStyle Properties Inc. (ELS) park, was in the middle of the burn area. Yosemite Ridge in Buck Meadows was temporarily evacuated but campers were allowed to return, after the fire burned right up to but not through the park. A third neighboring park, Yosemite Pines in Groveland, seemed safe as the fire appeared headed away from there.

These and similar campgrounds and RV parks in the paths of these flaming cauldrons across the Western U.S. have fallen victim in one way or another. But, says the executive of one state campground association, campers should remember to keep the fires in perspective.

“What is always disheartening to me is, people think the entire state is on fire,” Anne Chambers, executive director of the Boise-based Idaho RV Campgrounds Association (IRVCA), told Woodall’s Campground Management on Aug. 21. “That is not the case. Do we have major fires? Yes. Will they disrupt travel plans for most people? Probably not.”

Indeed, on that date, while several national forest campgrounds in the mountainous Sawtooth National Forest region of central Idaho were closed due to the Beaver Creek Fire which started on Aug. 7, Chambers knew of only one privately owned park, the Meadows RV Park in Ketchum, that was directly affected by the blaze. The 43-site park is located on U.S. 75 just south of Sun Valley. (See related story.)

Thirty miles to the east of the major fires, at the Craters of the Moon KOA in Arco, Idaho, life was pretty much as usual.

“People are asking us how the smoke is before they come here,” said Debbie Belknap, acting manager. “We can see the smoke in the air far away but we can’t smell it. I’ve only been here for a few weeks but I can’t say that it has affected anything.”

A few of the campers were evacuees from the fire zone. They had packed up what they could in their two vehicles and headed to the KOA earlier in the month, she noted. They have since left.

Most of Idaho’s 250 privately owned campgrounds were not affected by the fires, Chambers stressed.

In fact, Chambers said, “It’s been a great season for most of the campgrounds, and a banner season for some of them. The RV population in Idaho has been traveling and it’s been fabulous. I have yet to hear anyone say it (business) has been off this year. To this point it’s been good. I’m grateful the fires didn’t start until later in the season. It allowed most (parks) to have a good May, June, July and most of August.”

But all this does not hide the fact that fighting the Beaver Creek Fire and the nearby Elk Fire was the National Forest Service’s (NFS) No. 1 priority that month, Chambers was told during a meeting with NFS officials in Boise as the fires raged.

More than 1,200 people and 19 aircraft battled the lightning-caused Beaver Creek Fire. Nearly 90 fire engines were assigned to the region, many protecting homes in the affluent area where celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks and Bruce Willis own pricey getaways.

While Boise lies some three hours west of the fire zone, it was more or less unaffected by the inferno. In past years when fires burned in the national forests, it was not unusual for Chambers to smell smoke in the state’s Treasure Valley on the west side of the state where Boise is located.

“Not so much this time,” she said. “The wind seems to be blowing from west to east and blowing the smoke into Montana instead of blowing it our way,” she said.

Elsewhere in the region, in nearby Yellowstone National Park, a series of five wildfires became known as the “Druid Complex” and covered more than 11,000 acres.

Speaking for Billings, Mont.-based Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA), which has numerous campgrounds in the West, “aside for a bit of smoke (even in Billings) campgrounds are unaffected. All are open and operating as usual,” said Mike Gast, vice president of communications.

California Fires

In California, fires affected several campgrounds too.

In this Friday, Aug. 30, 2013, photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, a member of the Bureau of Land Management Silver State Hotshot crew from Elko, Nevada, walks through a burn operation on the southern flank of the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park in Calif. / MIKE MCMILLAN,AP PHOTO/U.S. FOREST SERVICE

In Stanislaus National Forest area just outside Yosemite National Park, some 900 firefighters were battling the Rim Fire that started on Aug. 17 and had scorched more than 100 square miles within the first week. A state of emergency was declared. Several camps were evacuated that day as a safety precaution. Those included: San Jose's Family Camp, Berkeley Tuolomne Camp, San Francisco's Mather Camp and Camp Tawonga. About 200 senior citizens and a few dozen staffers were forced to evacuate from Camp Mather, which is owned and operated by the city of San Francisco as a public getaway for city families and was hosting a special week for the group.

The national park itself remained open and tourism was reported at normal levels inside the park.

The Chariot Fire broke out on July 6 near Julian, 60 miles east of San Diego, and destroyed the lodge, dining hall and all but about a dozen of 116 cabins at Al Bahr Mount Laguna Shrine Camp. A Sierra Club lodge across the road also burned.

“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” Shriner Donald Wierman told U-T San Diego.

The camp, located in the Cleveland National Forest, was leased from forestry officials in 1921. It was at an elevation of 6,000 feet. About 30 people were evacuated from cabins and campgrounds before the fire hit.

Merchants in the mountain community of Idyllwild, which relies heavily on summer tourists, saw profits wane in the face of two major fires this summer, the Riverside Press-Enterprise reported.

Visitors were slowly returning to towns in the San Jacinto Mountains after the Mountain Fire in July burned more than 27,000 acres of forest and led to a four-day evacuation for Idyllwild and a few other towns.

Then, the Silver Fire burned south of Banning in mid-August, closing Highway 243 and cutting off access to Idyllwild from the north.

On the south side of the mountain, the Lake Hemet Campground saw a definite decline in business. The campground was emptied during the Mountain Fire and served as a base for some of the 3,000-plus firefighters who were on duty. Now, operators are hoping campers will return.

“During the fire, people were calling up and cancelling,” General Manager Tim Colvin said in mid-August. “People think we were damaged here and they’re not calling. The phone should be ringing a lot more than it is right now.”

Mid-July to mid-August is traditionally the campground’s busiest season, with occupancy rates topping 80% for the park’s 600 spaces.

Two weeks after the Mountain Fire, occupancy was less than 70%.

The campground, which has fishing and boating as well, offered some bargains in hopes of attracting campers. Anyone who signed up for two nights of camping got a third night free, and those who stayed two nights got a free boat launch.

“We want people to know this campground wasn’t affected in any way,” Colvin said.

Camp Colorado Touts State

Camp Colorado takes lead in responding to wildfire news.

In June, Colorado was racked by several fires, one of them destroying the aerial tramway in the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park near Canon City. The fire burned 3,218 acres before being declared 100% contained on June 17. The park was within the burn area and, while the bridge itself survived, 48 of the park’s 52 buildings were destroyed.

Camp Colorado Executive Director Josh Keltner, in an appearance on Denver television on June 21, encouraged campers and other tourists to visit the Royal Gorge Region, which rebounded nicely following the three-day fire that damaged the Royal Gorge Bridge but left all private campgrounds unaffected.

“If you’re planning to go to the Royal Gorge Region this weekend or anywhere in the near future and you were thinking about canceling because of the fires, don’t,” Keltner told 9News, the Denver TV station.

9News went on to report that while the Royal Gorge suspension bridge needs repair, the railroad below “is 100% open and… this weekend the river is open thorough the gorge too, a relief to the workers who depend on tourists.”

The station made note of a large fire burning that same day near the Colorado town of South Park, 155 miles southwest of Cañon City. But that fire wasn’t affecting other areas of the state, which has 350 private campgrounds – virtually all of them open.

Camp Colorado, the state’s campground trade association, played a key role in correcting the misimpression that the Royal Gorge Region should be avoided. With the exception of the bridge, which reopened later in the summer, stores, restaurants and museums were open, and biking, hiking and rafting opportunities abounded.

The Black Forest Fire erupted in June near Colorado Springs and scorched more than 25 square miles, killed two people and destroyed nearly 400 buildings. The blaze surpassed last June's Waldo Canyon Fire as the most destructive in state history.

Other Areas

While central Idaho burned, crews continued battling other wildfires across the West, including a group of three fires near the Oregon city of The Dalles, on the Columbia River, The Associated Press reported.

In Utah, a series of mountain fires burned more than a dozen homes in mid-August and more than 100 residents who were forced to leave Rockport Estates and Rockport Ranches, about 45 miles east of Salt Lake City.

Utah's biggest blaze, the Patch Springs Fire, was estimated at 50 square miles.

In New Mexico, campgrounds in almost all of the Santa Fe National Forest and some nearby state parks were closed part of June due to ongoing fire risks.

In Arizona, 19 members of an elite “hotshots” crew died while battling a separate fire on June 30. –

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