By Jennifer Calfas
July 25, 2018

A roaring wildfire near Yosemite National Park has dampened one of the busiest and most lucrative weeks of the year for the area’s quaint bed and breakfasts, popular hotels, and tour companies that bring visitors to El Capitan, Half Dome, and the park’s other iconic features.

For the first time in 28 years, Yosemite National Park officials have closed popular portions of the tourist destination as a nearly 40,000-acre fire scorches the Sierra National Forest in Northern California, filling the nearby national park with heavy and potentially hazardous smoke. While the blaze has not yet reached the park itself, officials say the closures were necessary to allow for safe firefighting efforts. And with park closures lasting Wednesday through Sunday at the very least, small business owners who depend on Yosemite’s jam-packed summer tourist season are now facing hefty financial losses as travelers cancel or postpone their visits.

“It really hurts,” says Ron Skelton, the owner of the Yosemite Blue Butterfly Inn, which sits 500 feet from one of the park’s entrances. He expects to lose $20,000 as a result of the closures. “This is our season, and you only have a certain number of months you can make any money up here.”

Closures in Yosemite Valley and Wawona, along with the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, have affected accommodation operations from small bed and breakfasts like Skelton’s to luxurious hotels like the Majestic Yosemite Hotel in the heart of Yosemite Valley, formerly known as the Ahwahnee. Backpacking tour groups have had to reroute their trips or cancel them entirely, and Yosemite tourist officials have been inundated with calls and questions as they scramble to offer alternative, indoor activities for eager tourists.

Scott Gehrman, the founder and executive director of Lasting Adventures, a backpacking and day hike tour company that operates in Yosemite, has cancelled all day hikes — around 20 to 30 in total — and rerouted backpacking trips for adults and children north to Tuolumne Meadows. With the tour company’s two busiest weeks of the year now hit with cancellations and rerouting, more than half of the company’s 35 guides won’t be able to work.

“Money that was in our bank we now have to turn around and refund people on an experience we were not able to offer,” Gehrman says. On Wednesday, he put together a list of frequently asked questions to more easily answer the flurry of inquiries from his current and future customers. With more numerous fires nearby over the last few years, Gehrman says, it’s been difficult to accommodate all trips to the best of the company’s abilities during peak season.

“Every year we haven’t been able to fully appreciate what we can do with an uninterrupted season due to fires or other natural concerns that scare people from coming to the park,” he says.

July and August are Yosemite’s most popular months of the year, with 592,990 and 600,349 tourists coming in each of those months on average, respectively. Any reduction in those numbers will hurt businesses in California’s Mariposa County whether they are directly tied to the park or not, as many sit on or near the Yosemite-bound roads and entrances that are now closed to accommodate firefighting efforts.

“It’s like a retailer losing a week of sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” said Ron Halcrow, the president of the Yosemite-Mariposa Bed & Breakfast Association, which manages many of the bed and breakfasts most affected by these cancellations. He said that as much of 20% of these companies’ yearly revenues could be lost. “As long as Yosemite is closed,” he adds, “tourism in the town of Mariposa is going to drop close to zero.”

Bette Young, a retired Silicon Valley tech professional who opened Bette’s Yosemite Bed and Breakfast four years ago, had to cancel reservations made by international visitors from South America and Ireland. “It’s the difference between having people come and have business, or not having any business at all,” she says. “It’s pretty ugly.”

The ongoing threat of wildfires throughout the summer and into the early fall has plagued Californians for decades. But in recent years, fast-moving, ferocious flames have become the new normal as the fire season grows longer and more intense, thanks in part to a years-long drought and millions of dead trees, which fuel blazes. Fires have encroached on Yosemite in the past, and it’s unclear if the nearly 40,000-acre fire currently burning nearby poses a risk to the park itself. Still, what’s being called the Ferguson Fire by officials is just 25% contained, and a bulldozer operator died while battling its flames early in the morning on July 14.

Therese Williams, the director of public relations for Visit Yosemite in Madera County, Calif., said the visitors bureau has accommodated some of the more than 3,400 firefighters who have arrived to fight the fire. In the meantime, Williams said, Yosemite tourist sites have been focused on two things: ensuring visitors are staying safe, and allowing firefighters to do their jobs. “Mother nature is in control right now,” she says, “and we’re just being patient.”

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