The week before Labor Day, the streets of Big Bear are usually teeming with tourists, the roads are clogged with cars and the campgrounds are overflowing. On Wednesday afternoon, however, the village was eerily quiet, with only a handful of locals on the streets, walking to the post office to pick up their mail.
A massive wildfire six miles northeast of Big Bear has scared away tourists and caused great concern among merchants, who rely on a lucrative Labor Day weekend to compensate for the many slow, snowy days ahead.
"It's dead on the streets today," said Cristy Alonzo, a waitress at Prospectors restaurant. "It looks like midwinter out there, not late summer.
"Labor Day weekend is our busiest of the year," Alonzo said. "If they don't make a lot of progress on the fire, and tourists are still scared away, the financial impact on businesses could be devastating."
The U.S. Forest Service emphasized that residents near Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead are in no immediate danger. The major roads leading to the area are still open, and the fire is not threatening the two towns. Although five campgrounds were closed earlier in the week, eight others remain open.
Still, because the fire has been blazing for days and has received so much attention, many tourists have stayed away from Big Bear and are threatening to cancel Labor Day weekend reservations.
Erica Bassett of the Big Bear Chamber of Commerce said only 15 of about 100 tourist cabins have been reserved for the weekend. Usually, the cabins are all booked well in advance of Labor Day.
Lake Arrowhead has fared much better than Big Bear, because the section of the fire near the lake has been contained, and the town is much closer to the highway that leads away from the fire and back to metropolitan areas.
"People are still coming up to Lake Arrowhead area campgrounds," said Kathy Slovik, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. "We're telling the people who call that the roads are open and most of the Arrowhead area is fine."
Although much of the national forest is closed to hiking and fishing because of the fire, she said, all the recreational activities at Big Bear Lake and Lake Arrowhead are open.
Some motel owners in Big Bear said the weekend can still be salvaged if the fire is well under control by Friday. Many customers have called, placed their reservations on hold and told owners they will cancel if the fire is still blazing Friday, but will show up if substantive progress is made.
"No one in Big Bear is facing any danger now, because there is still a significant amount of mileage between the fire and the town," said Forest Service spokeswoman Kristel Johnson. "But it's not looking good as far as getting the fire under control by Labor Day weekend. It's about 20% contained, so we still have a long way to go to get the other 80%. And at this point, we haven't stopped the initial rate of spread."
In Los Angeles County, the U.S. Forest Service announced Wednesday that it will close all the campgrounds in San Gabriel Canyon, north of Glendora, because of the fire in the Angeles National Forest. Earlier in the week, more than 4,000 campers and residents in the area were evacuated as the fire expanded.
In Lake Arrowhead, motel owners hope there is not a rash of cancellations on Friday.
"People are telling me they're following the fire and taking a wait-and-see position, said Sondra O'Rorke, assistant manager of the Arrowhead Treetop Lodge. "Everyone up here is pretty edgy about what's going to happen."