Wildfire damaged area hopes to bring back tourists

SPOKANE — Shortly after a wildfire blew up in north-central Washington in July, cancellations started pouring in to Sun Mountain Lodge.

In short order, the resort near Winthrop had 800 cancellations — not only for the summer months, but for the fall, too.

People thought the entire Methow Valley had gone up in flames, said Brian Charlton, the resort’s general manager. The 112-room lodge was evacuated twice, but escaped the fire. An extensive trail network that makes Sun Mountain Lodge a destination for horseback riding, hiking, cycling, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing also was spared.

The resort’s webcam shows images of green, timbered mountains. But Sun Mountain Lodge and other Okanogan County destinations are having a hard time shaking off the economic downturn caused by the fires.

“We’re still suffering from prior cancellations,” Charlton said. “When you have 300,000 acres burned up, the perception becomes widespread . that everything has turned to cinders.”

A $150,000 marketing campaign, financed by Gov. Jay Inslee’s strategic reserve account, aims to turn that around. The campaign paid for recent advertising in Western Washington and British Columbia, touting fall and winter recreation. Next year, part of the grant will pay for ads promoting summer tourism in Okanogan County.

Along with apple orchards, tourism is one of the region’s largest industries, said Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the Economic Alliance of Okanogan County.

“We’re really trying to let people know that Okanogan County is open for business,” she said. “A lot of our small businesses depend on traffic from out-of-town visitors.”

The Carlton Complex fire, which destroyed 300 homes and became the largest wildfire in Washington’s history, arrived at the height of the summer recreation season, when salmon fishing, community festivals, golf and other outdoor recreation typically draw people to the area. Eerie images of burning landscapes lingered in Washington residents’ minds, affecting attendance at later events, such as the Omak Stampede and Grand Coulee Dam’s summer laser light shows, Holder-Diefenbach said.

But only a fraction of Okanogan County’s 3.4 million acres burned in the fires. Business districts in the Columbia River towns of Bridgeport, Brewster and Pateros were spared. And there are plenty of tourist activities taking place throughout the fall and winter, when snow sports begin, Holder-Diefenbach said.

Steelhead season has opened on the Columbia River. It’s expected to last through the end of December, depending on fish counts, said Virgil Yancey, who owns Yancey’s Hardware in Pateros.

Next Friday evening, a Celebrate Steelhead event takes place at the Pateros Central Building, with free sessions on how to catch steelhead on the Methow, Okanogan and Columbia rivers.

Last summer’s fires have affected steelhead fishing, Yancey said. When it rains, the runoff flushes topsoil and ash into local rivers, creating poor fishing conditions.

Yancey and his employees field calls from anglers in Spokane and Seattle, providing information about the clarity of the water and the day’s fishing prospects.

“Our downtowns are welcoming tourism,” said Sabrina O’Connell, treasurer of the Brewster Chamber of Commerce and co-owner of a grocery store.

In the aftermath of the fires, “we were overwhelmed with the unselfish activities of people far and near,” she said. “It’s going to be a long-term effort to revitalize our communities and help the people affected.”

Planning a trip to Okanogan County is one of the ways the public can continue to support fire-affected areas, O’Connell said.

The area’s natural beauty remains “alive and bountiful,” said Charlton, the Sun Mountain Lodge manager. “If you come to the lodge to ski, you’ll see the same trees and the same trail” that were there in previous years.

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