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Durango businesses wary as 416 Fire rages

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This photo taken June 9 shows the 416 Fire burning on the east side of Hermosa Cliffs near Hermosa, Colo. (Jerry McBride/The Durango Herald)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Fire smoke in the mornings, clear by noon, business as usual if slightly down.

That’s the report from Durango, Colo., where the 416 Fire continues to burn about 11 miles north of town.

The fire was first reported on June 1, at about 10 a.m. By Monday, 11 days after it began, it had burned through 22,100 acres of mostly San Juan National Forest land, but some private land as well, said La Plata County spokeswoman Megan Graham.

More than 900 people are fighting the fire, which has thus far resulted in the evacuation of 2,162 homes, though none of them was reported to have burned, she said. Another 500 residences have been notified they may have to evacuate, Graham said.

Due to continued extreme fire danger, San Juan National Forest officials planned to close hundreds of miles of trails and thousands of miles of back roads by this morning.

This satellite image shows the 416 Fire as it burned on June 10 northwest of Hermosa, Colo. (Digitalglobe Via Associated Press)

The 416 Fire, as of Monday night, was 15 percent contained. Purgatory Resort was evacuated and the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was shut down.

It may have been sparks from the coal burning steam railroad that set off the fire.

The Durango Herald newspaper published a story last week in which a resident who lives along the tracks said he saw “a wisp of smoke” as the train came around a bend in the track. He and another resident told the newspaper it was not unusual for the train to start spot fires along this section of track.

Regardless of the fire’s cause, Durango businesses are feeling the impact.

Over at the Turtle Lake Cafe, staffer Catherine Grillos did not equivocate: “It (fire) totally is affecting business,” she said. “We were just sitting around kvetching about it. It’s affecting my business and all businesses. Tourists are staying away, so we’re not getting the volume of people coming and going. We do the farmers market on Saturday morning; it was down at least 30 percent, maybe more.”

Grillos also said customers are annoyed by authorities who “keep saying the fire is under investigation, when they know darn well the train caused it,” she said.

“Look, we love the train. It brings tourists. But they should have put the diesel train out. They don’t like to do that because it’s not real and authentic. Well, the fire is real and authentic,” Grillos said.

Sharon Taylor, owner of home furnishings store Tippy Canoe, said “the fire has slowed things a little, maybe 5 or 10 percent, but we are still open for business and everything in Durango is pretty much wide open.”

Taylor said Durango gets smoke in the morning, but it blows out before noon and the rest of the day is generally clear.

Sam Redman, co-owner of Thru the Lens Old West Photos, said people who booked flights to Durango months ago have not canceled. “There is still all kinds of activity and things to do around here. As far as foot traffic, we’re down a little bit, but that may also be because of the slow winter and the lack of moisture.”

The whole town benefits from business attracted by the narrow gauge railroad, “so when the train is not running, business declines a little, but there’s so much else to do in Durango to make up for it,” Redman said.

Theresa Graven, spokeswoman for the Durango Area Tourism Office, acknowledged that “some of our businesses have been impacted.” Still, most businesses remain open.

“One of our hotel partners told me they’re at about 75 percent capacity and normally at this time of the year they’d be at 100 percent,” Graven said. “But when you go into restaurants, they’re full and it’s hard to get a table. I was just Downtown this afternoon in the Historic District and it’s busy. There’s no mass exodus. People are still coming here.”

Likewise, Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, which represents about 800 businesses and 20,000 people, said “we’re seeing a slight decrease in business, but that’s inevitable.” The Downtown corridor was “pretty much business as usual.”

But outside Durango, the San Juan National Forest was planning to prohibit most entry into the forest due to the danger of wildland fire beginning today.

Forest campgrounds, day use areas, roads, and trails will be closed, including wilderness areas, and hiking, dispersed camping, and other recreational activities are prohibited, the Forest Service announced.

The San Juan National Forest covers 1.8 million acres within the Dolores Ranger District, the Columbine Ranger District and the Pagosa Ranger District across nine counties in southwestern Colorado. County and state roads and U.S. highways that cross Forest Service lands will not be affected.

Meanwhile, the Durango Business Improvement District, which represents 400 commercial properties and 1,000 separate businesses, is encouraging local residents to come out and support local businesses, said Tim Walsworth, executive director. “Our locals are doing a great job. They’re saying, ‘we want to help, but we can’t fight fire.’ So we’re telling them to go out and buy dinner at a local restaurant, or go out and buy a book or a gift for someone instead of ordering it off the internet.”

Further, when there is a massive fire fighting effort, nearby communities feel the impact of federal dollars spent on fire suppression, Walsworth said.

“We can replace some of the lost tourist dollars with suppression dollars being spent on gas, food, clothing, suppression supplies, hotel rooms and that sort of thing,” he said.

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This satellite image shows the 416 Fire as it burned on June 10 northwest of Hermosa, Colo. U.S. 550 can be seen on the right side of the photo.(DigitalGlobe via Associated Press)

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