After Spring Fire, Colorado’s Spanish Peaks hoping for big summer for tourism

To recover from last year’s fire, tourism officials in the Spanish Peaks region are hopeful they will see one big summer of visitation.

Both sides of Highway 160 have burned from the Spring Fire on La Veta Pass Sunday, July 8, 2018, near La Veta, Colo. The Spring Fire burned through Paradise Acres and other neighborhoods in Huerfano and Costillo counties over the past week and has burned an area slightly larger than the city and county of Denver. The fire has burned 106,985 acres and currently stands at 55 percent containment. The area around Paradise Acres has been a tricky area to contain with difficult terrain and unpredictable winds. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via AP)

The view of La Veta pass last Fourth of July was covered by flames and smoke. Instead of celebration — water fights, fireworks and grilling — the Spring Creek Fire was sweeping its way through two southern Colorado counties.

The fire started a week earlier, June 26, at about 3:30 p.m., according to fire investigators. Over three weeks, 141 homes were lost and 108,000 acres were burned. Overall, the impact was devastating to the infrastructure and economy of the Spanish Peaks region.

“The timing couldn’t have been worse,” said La Veta Mayor Doug Brgoch, who’s been the city’s top lawmaker off-and-on for more than 20 years.

Fewer than 800 people live in La Veta, and even fewer in the neighboring village of Cuchara, which has become a hot spot for Texans and Oklahomans looking to escape the summer heat in the Southern Rockies. For many who flock to the area, the Sangre de Cristo mountains are the closest. Cabins dot the Cuchara Valley, and the shops and local Cuchara watering hole, the Dog Bar, close during the winter.

That’s all different when the temperature starts to rise. The bed-and-breakfast rooms are booked up and the patio at the Dog Bar is buzzing with visitors and hummingbirds overhead.

Local restaurants were about the only aspect of tourism that wasn’t devastated during the fire, Brgoch said. Instead of the nearly 10,000 tourists that were expected to be around the region for the holiday and an arts and music festival, it was hundreds of firefighters battling the blaze that were sitting at the tables.

It took nearly a month to contain the fire, which was fueled by ultra-dry sage, oak, juniper and pine trees. Jesper Joergensen was charged with 141 counts of arson for starting the fire that spread across Costilla and Huerfano counties.

The burn scar is starting to green up, Brgoch said. “The trees are gone. It is what it is.”

He says he’s hopeful for the upcoming tourism season, though.

“It took time to ramp back up, but when people change their plans, they change it for that summer,” he said of last year, describing the entire season as a sort of “hangover.” Visitors didn’t return even after the fire was contained. They’d decided to vacation elsewhere, he said.

The Spanish Peaks Music Festival was cancelled. Rising country music star Cody Johnson is set to headline the event this year. The Celtic music festival is still planned for September. And there are a bevy of art galleries and performances slated for the summer months.

The massive fire attracted media attention from as far away as Denver, and with that came the message that La Veta and Cuchara were closed for business.

That hangover that Brgoch described is typical for small mountain towns that have experienced wildfires. The fire that hit the Royal Gorge Bridge & Park in 2013 “ravaged” Cañon City, which relies on its outdoor space to draw thrill-seekers, from hikers to rafters and those just wanting to marvel at the gorge.

Five years after the fire, then-mayor of Cañon City, Tony Greer, asked locals to go out and eat or shop at local merchants to keep them afloat as the park rebuilt some of its attractions and healed from the fire that scorched more than 3,200 acres and razed 48 structures at the park.

Even after Greer touted that the city was “open for business,” recovery was slow.

The Spanish Peaks region’s tourist attractions weren’t hit nearly as hard as Cañon City’s.

The evidence from the fire is difficult to spot from the Ryus Avenue Bakery near Main Street in La Veta. The lakes are still pristine fishing spots. Many of the nearby hiking trails, even the remote ones, are unscathed.

“This fire, most people wouldn’t even know it happened, because it didn’t a lot of ground where tourists go,” said Larissa Morris, the president of the La Veta Cuchara Chamber of Commerce. “It didn’t touch any of that. Some of the hiking areas really far back, you’d notice it.”

Morris said she finds it amazing that those areas escaped the fire.

In La Veta, locals now worry about flooding from the burn scar. A big storm or series of rains could be again disastrous for the community. Gov. Jared Polis and safety officials toured the area in April alongside Brgoch to learn more about the potential flood impacts.

“They’re being really proactive,” Brgoch said of the state’s involvement in flood-prevention.

The state is doing what it can on the economic side.

“Our kind of MO is that as soon as we learn about a crisis situation like a wildfire, flood or man-made disaster, we reach out,” said Abigail Leeper, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Tourism Office.

That’s exactly what the tourism office did after the Spring Creek fire last summer.

“We get an idea of what’s going on the ground there and put information through our channels,” she said.

Last summer kept Leeper’s office busy with 12 fires burning across the state at the same time as the Spring Creek Fire.

There are a variety of ways the tourism office can work with a community following a fire: marketing assistance through press releases, messaging through social media, microloans and project grants.

“We really let them take the lead on how can we help get these messages out,” Leeper said.

Morris, the Chamber president, said the state has been helpful in promoting the region. She says she’s seen a few inquiries from reporters and articles published about things to do.

While the business owners took a hit last year, Morris said people shouldn’t be afraid to visit this summer. There’s a lot going on, and the community relies on the summer visits.

“This is a summer destination for many people, so to have all those people not show up, it’s just a giant impact,” Morris said. “We really count on all those people coming to enjoy fishing, hiking, eating out, dancing at the Dog Bar. Now we’ve got the Mercantile with live music. We have all of our live performances. We really do count on these people. It’s what makes our community thrive.”