Durango lives off of summer tourism.
With the state’s largest wildfire smoldering just up the road, the local economy is deeply feeling the sting. The Four Corners region is already in the throes of drought and the 43 square mile 416 Fire isn’t helping. Conditions and the blaze have forced the closure of the recreation-rich San Juan National Forest.
More than a million and a half visit the San Juan each year, most of them in the summer, according to the Forest Service — and most parties spend an average of almost $700 in the community.
If you head north on Highway 550 out of Durango you might spy a yellow sign with the words “Animas City Farmers Market.” It’s a new event and Jackie Cox is waving her arms trying to catch the attention of drivers.
The trouble is the highway leads right toward the flames of the 416 Fire.
The main drag between Durango and Silverton has been closed much of the time since the fire started June 1. It reopens periodically, usually with travel restrictions. Most of the vehicles passing the roadside stand are full of fire crews and they have other priorities.
“We have a really strong community in Durango, and I think people will come out, fire or no fire,” Cox said, keeping her hopes up that business will pick up at the market.
Other businesses across town are feeling the pinch. The fire has shut down the famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, putting 150 employees on furlough. The Durango Herald reported that a closure for the whole month of June could result in a $33 million economic loss.
Also hurting are river guides, pot shops, art galleries and musicians.
Lacey Black is one of those musicians. She plays piano at a restaurant up Highway 550 in Silverton, a major source of income for her. The restaurant is closed thanks to the fire, so she’s “losing anywhere from $100 to $300 dollars a day,” just in tip revenue.
It’s a major dent and she thinks she’ll be lucky to pick up 20 or 25 percent of her normal earnings this month.
The drought and the lackluster snow have kept things lean for a while. Black said that the terrible snow year killed last winter’s tourism too. For the people who have stuck it out, hoping to bounce back, the combination of the conditions and the fire are “like a one-two punch.”
Even in the face of a wildfire, the old saying about making lemonade out of lemons still applies. Wedding photographer Alexi Hubbell and one couple who was forced to move their nuptials because of the blaze now have a viral photo to show for it.
“So, it’s a bride and groom, what people like to call the Gone with the Wind photo now it seems on Twitter.”
The gentleman is dipping his new bride in a field, very classy. One big difference from your typical romantic photo is the “extremely, extremely massive smoke cloud” that looms in the background.
— Steve McNelis (@stevemcnelis) June 11, 2018
The picture is incredibly striking, but not everyone wants apocalyptic wedding photos and the 416 Fire keeps growing at this point.
“Well, I have lots of frantic clients right now,” Hubbell said.
Many are thinking of canceling their weddings, a big concern for a photographer that makes 50 percent of her annual income comes from those ceremonies.
News organizations all over have been asking for that viral wedding photo. Hubbell is asking them to donate to a fund set up by some local community members trying to provide stimulus to those losing money due to the 416 Fire.