Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Cheer up! Better days are just ahead

Yellowstone bounced back after 1988 fire

Express Staff Writer

It?s not all gloom and doom following the Castle Rock Fire. Sturtevants General Manager Jeff Davis says the fire was an obvious setback to the store?s Labor Day sales. ?However, we remain positive with the inventory we have due to locals rallying around and supporting local businesses. Also, the chamber is trying to schedule future events in an attempt to bring more people into town at later dates and help us recoup fire related Labor Day losses.? Photo by Willy Cook

In the bleak, stressful days of World War II when public morale needed constant boosting, one song dominating the charts and lifting national spirits was the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen ditty, "Accentuate the Positive, Eliminate the Negative," popularized by crooner Bing Crosby.

"You've got to ac-cen-tuate the positive,

E-lim-inate the negative,

Latch on to the affirmative

Don't mess with Mister In-Between."

That seems to be the recurrent, overriding contemporary theme wherever one goes in fire- and smoke-besieged Ketchum: Spirits remain high, the outlook for better days and humor running amok, despite the major economic setback of event-filled Wagon Days being cancelled and tourists for the year's biggest business day remaining away in droves.

"Think rain!" a new handmade sign implores. T-shirt stores have turned gloom into cheer. Among the new wisecracking T-shirts is one proudly announcing the wearer to be "Evacuee!"

Sure, the economic news isn't good, and no one is in denial.

Carol Waller, executive director of the Sun Valley--Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau, has made it a priority, she said, to tell the truth when out-of-towners telephone for information about the Castle Rock Fire.

"Tell the truth," she emphasized again. As for what she tells them, and as for the decision by community leaders to cancel the financially bountiful Wagons Days, she said, "we don't want people walking around here in smoke" because they weren't advised.

As to just how damaging the economic impact of lost summer tourists will be, Waller said that won't be known until sales tax revenue figures are compiled and compared with other years.

However, she was quick to add that better days are just ahead. With the fire subdued, Waller said other magnet events for tourists—the Hemingway Festival, Jazz Festival, Trailing of the Sheep and the Spiritual Film Festival, just to name a few—will soon be in full swing to help recoup some of the financial losses.

Without skipping a beat, the chamber has cooked up a new event with an appropriately catchy name, "Kick Ash Bash," to honor the more than 2,000 firefighters, law enforcement officers and civic volunteers who have pitched in to fight the blaze and provide other support services.

A couple of bellwether businesses also are frank about their setbacks, but just as bright about the days ahead.

At Sun Valley Resort, Marketing Director Jack Sibbach estimated last week that the lodge's hotel business was down 25 percent "and probably would get worse by the weekend."

But, reflecting the community's upbeat attitude, Sibbach said his company's marketing and sales forces are on telephones assuring fall and winter guests and groups that it will be business as usual with the Bald Mountain ski area open for the season.

Incidentally, in the spirit of the community's support for firefighters, Sun Valley Co. turned over River Run Lodge to the Forest Service as a command center and reserved the adjoining parking lot as a fire-fighting support campus.

At Atkinsons' Market in Ketchum, Manager Tom Pyle downplayed the downside of the fire and expressed confidence in the days ahead.

"Sure, we're off some" in business because of the Wagon Days cancellation, he said, "but the outlook is good, and there's no reason why people won't come back.

"We'll have a strong September," he said confidently.

The fire-fighting effort has brought some business to the local economy, but not a lot.

A Forest Service spokesman, Jim Wittington, said the agency awards national contracts for its fire-fighting support services, so few local purchases of any magnitude are made. But he said firefighters are occupying about 100 hotel rooms per day for the duration of the fire. He said individual firefighters also head for hamburger and pizza eateries when off duty.

The widespread confidence in an economic bounce-back is not misplaced.

Consider the Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988, a disaster that makes the Castle Rock blaze seem like a campfire for marshmallows.

More than 793,000 acres of Yellowstone were turned to ash (versus some 50,000 acres here), and the summer tourist season for nearby Jackson Hole, Wyo., was virtually wiped out, though the roughly 25,000 firefighters generated some financial revenue.

But Angus Thuermer, co-editor of The Jackson Hole News&Guide, said his town bounced back briskly, and suggested Ketchum would, too.

"It was fascinating," he said. "Some tourists came to see the extent of the fires. Fireweed and all kinds of vegetation and even flowers grew quickly in burn areas. People came to see the change in landscape," he said. "Yellowstone healed itself quickly."

Thuermer also said that despite the fire, "Animals were all here. Fishing was here."

Some things, not even a forest fire can destroy.

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