Tourism-dependent businesses holding fast as fires close some Montana outdoor attractions

Tourism-dependent businesses holding fast as fires close some Montana outdoor attractions

Source: Missoulian
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DAVID ERICKSON

Tourism is a vital part of the economy in western Montana during the summer, and the wildfires that have caused closures of popular roads, lakes and river access points have local businesses taking a pretty big hit.

“We’ve had to turn quite a few people away and send them to other rivers,” said Carolyn Persico, the longtime owner of the Rock Creek Fisherman’s Mercantile.

A big portion of Rock Creek Road, which runs along the blue ribbon fishing creek east of Missoula, was restricted to local-only traffic on July 20 as the Goat Creek wildfire crept to within a few hundred yards of homes. The nearby Little Hogback and Sliderock fires also belched smoke into the valley.

Persico said that she and other tourism-based businesses in the Rock Creek area depend on the busy summer months for almost all of their yearly income.

“July and August usually make up about 40 percent of our business,” she said. “We’ve had quite a few cancellations.”

Fortunately, the annual Testicle Festival at the Rock Creek Lodge is being held the weekend of Aug. 5, so Persico said those guests aren’t canceling reservations.

“They don’t really care about fishing,” she said.

Usually, Rock Creek remains open when other rivers are closed due to “hoot owl” restrictions, which are meant to protect fish from being handled during the heat of the day when they’re already stressed. Persico said she usually sees an uptick in business around that time, but this year’s road closure negates that advantage.

“Hopefully September is a good month for us,” she said. “Hopefully it’s open at that time.”

Persico’s business has become the Rock Creek community’s unofficial post office since the mail trucks can’t go up the road. She said the last time a wildfire caused so much disruption was in 2007, and she bounced back from that financial hit without too much trouble.

“That one closed us for about a month,” she said.

Approximately 12.35 million nonresident tourists visited Montana in 2016 and spent a total of $3.46 billion here. Nearly half, 46 percent, of those visitors came in the months of July, August and September.

This year, those who are traveling to western Montana will be hitting the peak of a nasty wildfire season, if they don’t cancel beforehand.

Business owners aren’t the only ones paying a high cost for the roughly 20 wildfires burning across the state, which encompass a combined area of nearly 600 square miles.

The state government spent $21 million fighting fires in the month of July alone, which is the same amount it paid for all of 2016. This spring, which was unusually rainy, forecasters were predicting a moderate fire season. Now that it’s costing the state about $1.5 million a day to fight fires, Montana’s $63 million firefighting reserve fund will be gone soon and the state will have to dip into the general fund.

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Kerry Bertsch, who owns The Lodges on Seeley Lake with her husband Brian Bertsch, said her guests hadn’t yet canceled because the waters of Seeley Lake were closed to make way for giant airplane scoopers that are fighting the Rice Ridge and Liberty fires in the area.

 

“I’m still crossing my fingers, waiting and seeing what’s going to happen,” she said. “We book a week at a time, and this group here now has hung in there. They’ve just been coming for years and years and have more tolerance. But we have a group coming in this Saturday, and this closure will affect us. We supply boats for our guests, and it’s all about the water. If the lake’s not open, it really affects us. We’ll see.”

Bertsch said she has been extremely appreciative of the firefighting efforts and doesn’t mind the water closure for that reason.

“I want to say, it was so impressive the air work that was done (Wednesday),” she said. “We’re pretty lucky to have those resources be on the fire. All day long, there were four of those big scooper planes coming in in five-minute cycles. It was unbelievable how much effort was put on this fire.”

The 2007 Jocko fire was the last time that Seeley Lake was so disturbed by a wildfire, Bertsch recalled.

“Summers are our busiest season here, and winter is second,” she added.

West of Missoula, the Burdette and Sunrise fires are wreaking a little bit of havoc on the Tarkio and Superior areas, respectively. Ray Baier and his wife built the Montana Trout Lodge back in 2002 and have seven guests right now.

“I think it’s day by day, hour by hour whether we are going to get evacuated,” he said on Thursday afternoon. “Last I heard there was a fire that had gone down even with the Tarkio exit on the west side of the river. That’s just a mile from our place, so that’s getting pretty close.”

Baier said he gets “100 percent” of his revenue in the summer months, so any drop off in reservations would be a drastic hit.

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The theme among business owners in western Montana is one of resiliency in the face of severe natural events.

In Lincoln, where the 5,200-acre Park Creek fire is two miles away and several other wildfires are burning in the area, tourism hasn’t dropped off much. Valerie Duvall, who helps manage the Hotel Lincoln with her husband Roy Putra, the owner, said she doesn’t think the town is any less busy.

In fact, Duvall said her hotel’s been booked solid for many days in a row. Because fire management personnel have been eating at local restaurants and buying supplies at local stores and staying in lodges in Lincoln, business actually might be better than if the fire weren’t there.

“It might even out, if anything,” she explained. “What we lose in tourism we gain in fire crew. They’re eating at all the restaurants here.”

Duvall said she did have one big family reunion cancel because of the smoke, but she said she’s had to turn others away.

“If we had 50 rooms here instead of just 14, we’d still be booked,” she said.

She said the fire management officials have been great and everyone in town has a positive attitude.

“Lincoln is a tough community,” she said. “There’s a lot of tenacity. We’ll be OK.”