Durango, Pagosa: ‘Still open for business’

“It looks like a warzone,” said Vallecito glider pilot Bob Thompson about a plume of smoke from one of the blazes in the the West Fork Complex Fire over the Needles Mountains. Thompson flew over the fire about 3:40 p.m. Sunday. He took the photo from about 17,000 feet looking east-northeast. Enlarge photo

Courtesy of Bob Thompson

“It looks like a warzone,” said Vallecito glider pilot Bob Thompson about a plume of smoke from one of the blazes in the the West Fork Complex Fire over the Needles Mountains. Thompson flew over the fire about 3:40 p.m. Sunday. He took the photo from about 17,000 feet looking east-northeast.

The wildfires have made Scott Fehrenbacher anxious about his summer vacations plans.

The Phoenix man would like to go to a Colorado Rockies game in Denver next week and then drive to Durango to celebrate the Fourth of July. With raging fires shutting down U.S. Highway 160 at Wolf Creek Pass, he is not sure if he can make the trip.

The TV news is absolutely no help.

“I’m really a low-information person right now. They mention these counties (on the news). I have no idea where that is. I’m from Phoenix,” Fehrenbacher said. “I’m trying to figure this out.”

Because no one knows when the highway will reopen, tourism offices in Durango and Pagosa Springs are reassuring tourists that the area is still open for business and suggesting alternate routes for making the trip.

So far, the message seems to be clearing the smoke. Tourists are still finding their way here.

“Lodging has reported some cancellations, but it’s not rampant,” said Mary Jo Coulehan, executive director of the Pagosa Springs Chamber of Commerce. “We have fire reports on our website, but we also have on our home page that we’re open for business. There are acres of wilderness still available to hike.”

Life goes on in Pagosa Springs. No events have been canceled, and while there is some smoke and fire odor in the morning, it’s usually gone by mid-day, she said.

“It’s actually quite clear here,” Coulehan said.

Patricia O’Brien, executive director of the Durango Area Tourism Office, believes tourists might have extended their stay in Durango soon after the closure of U.S. Highway 160 was announced Thursday. Overall, she has not noticed a decrease in business.

Korey Samson, sales and marketing director for Gateway Reservations in Durango, said “most people are happy to hear we’re unaffected so far.”

Travel offices advise tourists coming from the east to avoid the closure at Wolf Creek Pass by detouring to Chama, N.M., where they can get back to Colorado by New Mexico Highway 17 and then U.S. Highway 84 to Pagosa Springs, which is linked by U.S. Highway 160 to Durango.

“It’s only 45 minutes more,” Samson said. “We’re trying to sell a positive story. It’s still an easy and beautiful drive.”

Because of all the re-routed traffic, business is booming in Chama, a village of 2,000 with a narrow-gauge railroad like Durango’s, the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad.

“It’s very unfortunate what’s happening in Colorado, but we’ve never had this kind of traffic as far as I can remember. It’s constant traffic, lots of business being done in town,” said Rose Martinez, executive director for the Chama Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Scott Burlison avoided the traffic by flying to Durango from Texas.

Because he has a vacation home near Vallecito, he has become used to the summer wildfires.

“It has certainly made us think where we can go fish, I’ll say that,” Burlison said.

“Last year, the smoke was so bad near Chimney Rock,” he recalled. “We got out of our truck, and we canceled (our fishing trip) right then and there.”

jhaug@durangoherald.com