Businesses Take A Hit As 416 Fire And Others Close Highways And Force Residents Out

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<p>Fighting the 416 Fire in Southwest Colorado.</p>
Photo: 416 Fire June 12 | Night Firefighter
Fighting the 416 Fire in Southwest Colorado.

Posted 3:23 p.m. | Updated 6:28 p.m.

The 22,000-acre 416 Fire and the smaller Burro blaze haven't led to the loss of any structures or human life, but they have impacted local businesses.

One those is James Ranch, which sells grass-fed beef along Highway 550, the road connecting Durango to the town of Silverton. The fires shut down the highway, and effectively the ranch with it.

“As a result, our business has been at zero for the last 10 days or so,” said Joe Wheeland, who helps run James Ranch.

Authorities announced Tuesday evening that Highway 550 would reopen at noon on Wednesday to the general public. San Juan County evacuees will also be able to return home beginning at 8 a.m. on Wednesday.

Wheeland doesn't know how much of a hit he'll take, but it won't be good. This is his peak season for tourists. The ranch has been under one of the 2,000 evacuation orders issued for days, but it gained an exception since the blaze has already passed through their area.

“With our animals being safe and out of the threat of the fire, we felt it was important that we stayed here and that we take care business during this time,” he said.

The San Juan National Forest made history when it closed for the first time in its 113-year existence on Tuesday.

“The San Juan Forest has never gone into full closure before. And the reason is to prevent additional human-cause fires,” National Forest Service ranger Cam Hooley said. “It's hard. It's a very difficult decision. We realize that is has a huge impact on our communities, but we felt it was the right thing to do. “

Photo: 416 Fire June 12 | Motel Sign
A sign on a motel near the 416 Fire in Southwest Colorado.

Forest Rangers are now sweeping roads and asking campers to leave the area. The service doesn't have the resources to reach all of the backcountry trails in the 18,000-acre forest, Hooley said, but rangers hope any backpackers will make their own way out over the next few days.

Purgatory Ski Resort is canceling reservations, and the Narrow-Gauge Railroad between Durango and Silverton will stay closed until the end of the month. Overall, more than 20 outdoors business in the area have reported they've been affected or closed by the fires, said Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office director Luis Benitez.

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the outdoor economy,” Benitez said.

Some businesses, such as the Colorado Outward Bound School, have rescheduled reservations to accommodate the fire, Benitez said. But other outfitters are taking direct losses, and he added it's still too early to estimate the impact.

“Right now, the primary thing to focus on is safety. Then understanding what the impact is, that's really on the other side of this,” Benitez said.

Despite the concerns from some businessowners in the area, Durango Mayor Sweetie Marbury said her town is still very much open for business. She even went out to buy groceries Tuesday.

“Just like usual. People are buying flowers to plant in the yards. People are going into Oscar's Restaurant,” Marbury said. “So life goes on.”

There are still other tourism options open around Durango: Mesa Verde National Park, golf and gold-medal fishing, Marbury said. The town is taking precautions though: the city council votes on whether to close open spaces and trails Tuesday.

“We understand Mother Nature is not happy right now. You can talk about climate change. You can talk about the extreme drought we’re in. But we know that we are resilient as a community,” Marbury said.

The National Weather Service forecasts a reprieve by means of a chance of rain Thursday. Gov. Hickenlooper plans to visit the area to get a sense of the damage at the end of the week.

The governor issued a response Tuesday that provided an update on the state's firefighting strategy:

“Colorado has allocated more resources for fire fighting than any other state in the Rocky Mountain West. We have seven interagency heavy air tankers fighting the Colorado fires and, through experience, we have learned how to integrate our state resources with our federal, county and municipal resources. We recognize the conditions are dry and hot. Public health and safety are the top priorities in fighting any fire. If you are in the fire zones, please follow safety procedures and directives. Our state agencies are here to support you. As we have proved time and time again, Coloradans are resilient.”