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In Colo., New Fire Worry Is Damage to Tourism Industry

Business: Daily media images of a state ablaze are taking hold in the country. Officials fear millions of potential visitors may stay away.

June 15, 2002|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DENVER — While an army of firefighters struggles to shield residences from Colorado's massive wildfires, a fight has begun to protect another potential casualty: the state's $7-billion tourism industry.

A week of apocalyptic images has sunk in across the nation--towering flames leaping from tree to tree, frightened homeowners fleeing in packed cars. It appears, on television at least, that "all of Colorado is burning," as the governor put it this week.

Businesses in Denver take exception to that, especially as peak tourism season begins. Nearly three-fourths of the city's 10 million visitors come during June, July and August, and city officials want the world to know that Denver is open for business.

"We can't have people thinking, as has been reported on some national broadcasts, that the fire is at Denver's door," Mayor Wellington Webb said this week. "The city is operating as it would on any other day. Denver is not on fire."

Try to explain that to concerned friends and relatives around the nation, who have puzzled over maps on TV and in newspapers that seem to suggest Denver is engulfed in flames. Many here are fielding frantic calls.

For Donna Kato, an electrician, the call came from her mother. "She said, 'I just called to see if you were burning up.' I said, 'Ah

This at a time when Colorado is experiencing its worst drought on record, turning green mountains to dun brown. The drought and extreme fire danger have also caused the closure of some state forests and parks, with more anticipated. By July 1, the city is expected to impose mandatory water rationing, thus condemning Denver's lovely lawns and parks to a sure death.

To make matters worse, fire officials estimate it could take all summer to fully extinguish the fire, which sprawls across four of the state's most populous counties.

The state is so concerned that its tourism office is developing a national advertising campaign to lure tourists to the state, reminding Americans that "only 1% of Colorado is on fire." Indeed, about 150,000 acres are on fire throughout the state. On the site of the state's largest blaze--the ferocious 102,000-acre Hayman fire that has become the star of nightly newscasts--cooler weather Friday helped the firefighting effort again. Crews labored to dig a 90-mile firebreak around the blaze, which was 30% contained Friday night.

Nearly 1,800 firefighters and support crews fought the Hayman fire, which stretches for 20 miles and still threatens 10,000 homes in suburbs 30 miles south of Denver. For a second day, military cargo planes from Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs were used to drop fire retardant.

"It was a good day for firefighting," said Larry Young of the Forest Service. "We went on the offensive. This is the most people we've had fighting the fire at any time."

More than 6,000 people remain evacuated. Fire officials estimate that 22 homes have been destroyed, but say that figure will rise as survey crews tour the burned areas.

The extent of the burn area is evidently unclear to those who don't live here. Eugene Dilbeck, president of the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau, was at a tourism trade show this week and said Denver's booth was swamped with convention planners who wondered if downtown hotels were still standing.

"They actually thought the fire was in town, that's the way the media has been playing the thing," Dilbeck said.

"The city and all of the activities that have been planned this summer, even the professional [Fourth of July] fireworks display, are still on.... There's really no reason not to come to Denver."

The city takes in $2.3 billion from tourism, which, as is true for the rest of the state, is dependent on natural beauty: majestic mountains, green forests and blue skies. And the fire's smoky haze over the metro area every day is not a pretty picture.

Gov. Bill Owens, who also described Denver's smoke-filled skies as "dark as a nuclear winter," has made such dire pronouncements in part to secure federal disaster aid. It worked. The Federal Emergency Management Agency wrote Colorado a $20-million check on Thursday.

After state tourism interests voiced concern this week, Owens toned down his descriptions of the situation. But he defended his earlier statements, saying he had an obligation to fully inform Coloradans of the extent of the "disaster."

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