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Colorado fire threatens Manitou Springs' livelihood

In this mountain resort town, the Waldo Canyon fire hasn't claimed any lives or damaged any homes. But its flames are keeping away tourists during the money-making season.

June 29, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Residents watch as smoke billows in the hills west of Manitou Springs, where hotels sit near-empty. Businesses simply cannot let the Fourth of July holiday pass without cashing in, residents say.
Residents watch as smoke billows in the hills west of Manitou Springs, where… (Bob Pearson, European Pressphoto…)

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. — The state's runaway fires have so far spared this mountain resort town, but as the traditionally hectic Fourth of July holiday approaches — and the flames loom nearby — economic worries hang like wood smoke over the so-called gateway to Pikes Peak.

Much of the Rocky Mountain foothills region south of Denver remains a disaster zone days after the Waldo Canyon fire swept through the Colorado Springs area, killing two people and destroying 347 homes — with tens of thousands of evacuees continuing to pack into emergency shelters and overflowing hotels.

But nearby Manitou Springs, which gained fame a century ago as a health resort for tuberculosis sufferers, has a different problem: Hotels like the Silver Saddle, Eagle Motel and Stagecoach Inn sit near-empty at a time when the shops and bars are usually teeming with people. Businesses simply cannot let the holiday pass without cashing in, residents say.

"I've got 18 rooms and they're all empty," said Aleece Gronski, owner of the Pikes Peak Inn. "I'm trying to keep my cool, because stress is a killer. But if we don't do something soon to bring the tourists back, people around here are going to panic."

Mayor Marc A. Snyder isn't so sure.

It was only Sunday when the town's 5,200 residents were evacuated. He shuddered as he recounted the craziness that came just after 1 a.m., when deputies began knocking on doors in the darkness, telling bleary-eyed residents and hotel-dwellers they had to go.

Hours later, on Sunday evening, after Snyder moved his wife and two children to a friend's house, the second-term mayor got a call from his emergency commander: The fire had been beaten back; it was time to let folks go home.

"My first reaction was no, and my second reaction was no," Snyder said. "I said 'Everyone is out of town; they're safe. That fire may not be done with us yet.'"

Snyder finally gave in. But like other civic leaders in the fire zone, he remains caught between concerns over caution and commerce: Do you follow the lead of tourism officials and bang the drum for visitors, or let prudence prevail?

"I've learned a lot about wildfires in the last five days: The threat assessment literally changes minute by minute," he said. "We could have to evacuate this town tomorrow. Who knows? And that fact worries me."

Before the fires, Manitou Springs had celebrated a success story. Once considered an eyesore at the bottom of 14,000-foot-high Pikes Peak, years of renovation paid off. Known as "the Springs" for its wealth of mineral springs, the eclectic town — where artists thrive and bears and deer are sometimes seen on the main drag — was recently named among the "coolest small towns" in America by a national travel magazine.

Still, locally owned businesses here have little margin for the whims of tourists. Much of Manitou Springs closes for the winter, with the nearest ski slopes hours away. Summertime is the money-making season.

"July 4 is Manitou's biggest weekend," said Roger Miller, chief operating officer of the visitors bureau. But this year, fireworks displays are banned. The annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, an athletic event that packs the town in early July, has been postponed.

"We're trying to stay positive," Miller said. "We're all going to get together soon to dream up a slogan that would bring people back to town."

When asked how far away the flames raged, Miller added, almost apologetically: "Oh, about three miles."

Nearby, in the heart of historic downtown, businessman Chris Abrams was a one-man welcome wagon. He's the owner of the Mountain Man: Muzzle-loading Outfitters, which is advertising its selection of "long rifles and pistols, knives, tomahawks, hides, furs and fine-trade goods."

"How much fire do you see in Manitou Springs?" Abrams asked one visitor. "There's no fire here, and no fire coming. And I don't believe for a moment that people won't stop coming here."

He singled out another customer. "Where are you from? Oklahoma? Well, you didn't stay away because of any fire warning, did you?"

Across the street at the Loop restaurant, manager Ben Clagett was offering a 10% deal for evacuees. Business was hurting; the restaurant was closed Sunday and continued with shortened hours this week.

"This fire came at the worst possible time," he said. "I don't get it. In the past, the fires have all been so distant, but this one hit close to home. It's right on our doorstep."

Near the edge of town, motel owner George Jones pointed up at the crest of the slope, where the blaze appeared Saturday. Townspeople, including Mayor Snyder, had watched the yellowish flames spread along the ridgeline in the near distance, the trees exploding like firecrackers. Since then, Jones said, several customers have called to cancel reservations.

In a way, Jones doesn't blame them. He talked about the infamous Hayman fire of 2002, which raged in the forest about 50 miles away. Back then, tourism shrank by 20%, and it took Manitou Springs years to recover.

Jones lit a Marlboro. "With that fire, we couldn't see the flames," he said. "With this one we could. They were right up there."

Locals know that in this punishing fire season — the worst in state history — other cities and towns have suffered more direct damage. Compared with others, the town has been lucky.

Manitou Springs waits for Independence Day in a state of suspended animation. "We love you firefighters" signs hang in many storefront windows; tiny American flags grace the outside of the American Legion hall.

But residents keep their bags packed — in case the fire once again shows its malevolence toward a small town that can't afford any more bad news.

john.glionna@latimes.com

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