Colorado wildfire cuts off cities of Durango, Silverton from tourists

(Courthouse News) A 27,000-acre wildfire burning in southwestern Colorado has cut off the cities of Durango and Silverton from their annual tourism revenue, with no signs the fire will let up this month.

The 416 Fire has burned 27,420 acres north of Durango since June 1, and is only 15 percent contained.

Over one thousand fire personnel and 55 engines work at putting out the wildfire, which officials expect to not be contained until July 31.

While no lives or structures have been lost, nearby towns feel the economic strain.

“Our town primarily survives on the tourism industry and people come to our town to raft our rivers, hike our mountains, ride our train,” said Alexi Hubbell, a wedding photographer who has lived in Durango for nearly three decades.

“I’m standing on my porch right now as I speak to you, and the smoke is pretty thick. I’m about seven miles from the fire as the crow flies and I could cut [the air] with a knife in my yard, because the wind just pulls it through at night and in the morning it settles,” Hubbell said. “This town is a very athletic, outdoorsy community, so not only is it hurting tourism, it’s hurting the community in general.”

Governor John Hickenlooper has urged people to visit and support the area.

“Durango, probably their greatest risk right now is people are going to be looking at canceling visits down the road. I understand where people are coming from, but it’s certainly unnecessary,” Hickenlooper said during a press conference. “If you want to help the people of Durango and La Plata County, go down to Durango and visit.”

La Plata County is offering resources to residents who have been temporarily laid off because of the fire. The Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado is also accepting donations to benefit residents.

Silverton, a town three hours north of Durango, has also seen its tourism decline.

“The road is closed so there is no traffic coming from Durango, which is the main artery into our community – and with the train not running, that’s 1,500 visitors a day that are not getting here, so it is a major economic impact,” said Bill MacDougall, fire inspector for Silverton.

A scenic train for tourists, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, connects the two cities. It suspended its coal-fired steam engine service in the area, “following extensive consultation with local authorities and agencies regarding their progress in containing the 416 Fire and the status of current fire, drought and weather conditions,” according to its website.

“There aren’t too many tourists that want to wait in line and drive really slowly for miles to get to Silverton,” said Chres Fleming, who lives near the train track. “I really feel sorry, not only for the people in Silverton who are going to suffer … I also feel sorry for the railroad employees because they furloughed them because they’re not running any trains.”

Evacuation orders have been lifted for residents of San Juan County along U.S. Highway 550 and cars are being escorted along the route, which was closed earlier this week.

The cause of the fire remains unconfirmed.

“There is an ongoing investigation with the Forest Service, La Plata County Sherriff’s Office, and Bureau of Land Management,” said Cam Hooley, acting public affairs officer for the San Juan National Forest.

The San Juan National Forest closed yesterday for the first time in its history.

Several other national forests have closed in response to extreme fire danger in the southwest, including Santa Fe National Forest in New Mexico and Coconino National Forest in Arizona.

Local crews are also working on the nearby Burro Fire, which has spread to 2,829 acres with zero containment.