Fires put damper on travelers’ plans
What had started out to be one of the busiest tourist seasons in recent history shrank almost overnight to nearly empty restaurants and motels as two raging wildfires, toxic smoke, and the closure of the North Cascades Highway forced travelers to abandon their plans.
Large hotels like the Freestone Inn and Sun Mountain Lodge have been ordered to evacuate completely. “Tourists are canceling like crazy — they’re watching the news,” said Kathleen Jardin, co-owner of Methow Reservations, who’s been issuing refunds for the past two weeks.
Some evacuees and fire crews are camping at the Winthrop KOA, but otherwise, “it’s pretty quiet — it’s weird,” manager Jennifer Rasmussen said. Many people are switching their reservation to the fall, she said.
“We’ve had hundreds of cancelations. What looked to be a great summer is now wide-open,” said Joshua Buehler, owner of AbbyCreek Inn in Winthrop and the Idle-A-While in Twisp.” Still, they’ve rented rooms to firefighters and evacuated locals, Buehler said.
On top of losing the room fee, many motels and guest houses have to absorb the processing fees charged by credit card companies on both the original reservation and the refund.
Although the smoke and fires are keeping people away, the closure of the North Cascades Highway is an equally big factor for many people, some who’ve come all the way from Texas or Florida to see the mountains, said Marlene Temple, information clerk at the Visitors Information Center in Winthrop.
Temple has been fielding phone calls about air quality and when the highway will reopen. On a normal summer day, 35 to 60 people stop in for recommendations, but last week there were just 15 in three days, Temple said.
There’s no place to send people for outdoor recreation, Temple said. “And I don’t see people walking around with shopping bags, either,” she said.
Some diehards are still making the pilgrimage to the Methow, and merchants said the summer started out busier than ever, with many visitors who’d never been to the valley before.
The Ross family, on a month-long tour from their home in Eugene, Oregon, made their scheduled stop in Winthrop. “We’ve had fires close to home and you get used to it,” Tracy Ross said as the family teed up for miniature golf at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe.
Lynn Webb, of Seattle, was having lunch at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery (OSB) and said she wasn’t going to let the fires deter her. “The Methow is my happy place. I do the best I can to support these people — I just want them to survive,” said Webb, who’s been coming to the valley every year since 1968. Most of her friends declined to join her this year, but she wanted to support the whole community — the restaurants, the grocery stores, the T-shirt shops, she said.
Firefighters are getting coffee, pastries and meals, and some are even doing some shopping. At Retro Pony, it’s been slow, but firefighters are buying souvenirs, and one even picked up cowboy boots to wear at her wedding, the clerk said. But some clothing and gift shops were closed completely last week.
Although business at Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe has slowed down dramatically, people are still venturing out for a treat. Locals stop in the afternoon as the air starts to clear, manager Lauren Kurtz said.
Three-quarters of the customers at the Rocking Horse Bakery have been firefighters, barista Stella Gitchos said. Locals started a fund at the bakery so that fire crews can get food for free, but about half of the firefighters still insist on paying and many stuff $10 bills in the tip jar, she said.
So many businesses are offering discounts to firefighters that those who come into the bakery say, “It’s so hard to pay for food in this town,” Rocking Horse barista Sophia Newton said.
Three Fingered Jack’s Saloon, OSB and East 20 Pizza have teamed up to offer discounts, plus free meals for firefighters, support crews, and displaced locals on certain days.
“The community generosity has inspired us to give what we can, and this feels like a great way to give back directly to all the people who are working to keep us safe,” Jack’s owner Seth Miles said. On Sunday (July 25), that generosity resulted in $3,500 in free meals for fire crews at the three restaurants, he said.
Tappi in Twisp and the KOA have also offered discounts to firefighters and evacuees.
For businesses that were struggling to find enough employees to be open every day, the abrupt decline in business has introduced a new challenge, OSB manager Kaitlyn Rihm said. They had to close their riverside patio because of the smoke.
Before the fires, OSB had been devising a more limited menu so it could be open every day, but now hours have been cut in half, she said. “We went from one extreme to another,” Rihm said. Still, they’re determined to be open for firefighters and for locals who’ve been displaced from their homes, she said.
“The summer might be over,” Rihm said, although if the pass reopens, that could restore some normalcy, she said.
“It’s just a nightmare, but it’s only money,” compared to the risks to people’s lives and homes, Methow Reservation’s Jardin said.