The Ferguson Fire and Yosemite Valley closures stifled the vibrant tourist commerce of Groveland in the past week, but on Thursday, nearly smokeless skies invited visitors through the Highway 120 corridor and to the western gateway to Yosemite National Park.

Steve Anker, owner of the Priest Station Cafe at the roadway junctions in Big Oak Flat, said when the Highway 120 Big Oak Flat entrance to Yosemite National Park was closed on Aug. 2, his clientele evaporated.

Employees were temporarily dismissed until he was down to just a “skeleton crew,” he said. Local regulars were absent, refusing to travel out into the acrid smoke for food or a drink.

In the busiest tourist season of the year, Priest Station Cafe was losing money every day.

“When they closed the gate here it was smoky beyond belief and just incredibly hot and unpleasant. We were probably at 80 percent less than what we were before,” Anker said. “It was just confusion and it was incredibly unhealthy. People go to the outsides to be outside, but this was worse than Beijing.”

Signs of improvement came slow. The Highway 120 Big Oak Flat entrance was reopened to the public on Tuesday. Between Wednesday and Thursday mornings, containment on the Ferguson Fire increased from 36 percent to 79 percent. The smoky skies thinned to a brighter shade of blue.

“For the first time, we just got slammed,” Anker said. “Today I was like, ‘Oh I’m back.’”

Yosemite Valley remains closed with not firm date for reopening announced yet.

“I feel like the containment being at 79 percent, it’s a lot less smoky than it has been,” said Jane Silveira, special events coordinator with The Historical Iron Door Saloon in Groveland. “We've had a pretty good day today I think.”

The business was “feeling the closure,” and laid off seasonal student staff early this year.

But with “plenty of local support” from vacation homes and the nearby Pine Mountain Lake community, the local economy appeared to be in its first phase of resurgence.

“I feel with our business year, of course we probably didn't see as much as we normally would,” she said. “But now we’re going really strong.”

Patti Berthelson, administrator for the Highway 120 Chamber of Commerce, said during the Highway 120 closure her office was inundated with inquiries about air quality the clarifications about the reopening of Yosemite National Park.

One couple from New Zealand actually visited her office, she said, to express their disappointment in the lack of park access.

Before the start of the Ferguson Fire and the subsequent closures of the Yosemite Valley, Groveland bustled with tourism, commerce, and activity, she said.

“Before the Ferguson Fire, it didn't matter. Any day of the week Groveland was packed but after the fire started it slowly started dwindling down. It was a noticeable difference.”

Business owners are regaining their optimism, she said, but the fate of summer tourism and commerce will be reliant on what happens next with the Ferguson Fire

“I want to promote people coming to town, but what am I supposed to tell them? Yosemite is all closed down and you can't breathe? But the highway is back open and the air is a little better, so I'm just thinking positive now,” she said.

Hotels

The Ferguson Fire has wrought more than just a momentary dip in the business of the hotels and accomodations on the western perimeter of Yosemite National Park, with cancellations extending into autumn.

Jen Edwards, owner of the Groveland Hotel and the Hotel Charlotte in downtown Groveland, said the businesses lost over 400 room night reservations over three weeks since the Ferguson Fire erupted on July 13 in the Sierra National Forest south of Yosemite National Park.

“That’s some pretty big dollar amounts for small businesses trying to make it through the winter. That's a big hit,” she said.

The Hotel Charlotte, a Victorian-style structure built in 1921 and a mainstay in the downtown Groveland corridor, has 13 rooms. The Groveland Hotel, recently renovated by Jen and her husband Doug Edwards after it was purchased in June 2017, has 18 rooms.

Like the Priest Station Cafe and the Historical Iron Door Saloon, reduction in employee salaries were some of the first consequences to the sudden vacancies.

Ambria Witt, front desk manager for The Groveland Hotel, said occupancy was usually full at this time of year, but currently, it was at 50 percent.

Images of the fire in international news media, and its deadly reputation following the death of two firefighters, have prompted cancellations extending all the way through the end of September, they said.

But the vacancies were doubly complicated when “Booking.com,” an online hotel booking company, mistakenly canceled more than 700 lodging reservations in Tuolumne County purchased through their site as a result of the Ferguson Fire and Yosemite Valley closure.

Megan Gerace, assistant marketing manager at Rush Creek Lodge and Evergreen Lodge, said their current occupancy rate has also dipped to nearly half-full, with cancellations extending as far as October.

Rush Creek Lodge, located on Highway 120 at the west entrance to Yosemite National Park, has 143 rooms, and Evergreen Lodge, located about one mile from the Hetch Hetchy entrance to the park, has 88 cabins.
“We definitely saw a lot of cancellations, especially once the 120 closed to the high country,” she said.

Staff of the hotels were working diligently to promote alternative recreation activities in other parts of Yosemite National Park, including at Tuolumne Meadows and Tioga Pass, in order to fill the hotel through the rest of the season.
Gerace said tourists and other visitors to the area were encouraged to use the hashtag “#YosemiteNow” to promote the natural beauty of the landscape open to the public, despite the Yosemite Valley closure.

The Yosemite Valley includes some of the most iconic tourist attractions of park, including Yosemite Falls, The Valley Loop Trail and the Yosemite Village.

Both Jen Edwards and Gerace blamed the specific verbiage of the “indefinite closure” of the Yosemite Valley, which has enforced the misconception of the entire park being closed.

“That word seems so dire,” Jen Edwards said. “I would really hope that someone learns from that next time, it's devastating to local businesses to use a term like that. It will be a hard battle to convince people that they can come back out and stay with us.”

The park

Yosemite National Park spokesperson Scott Gediman explained that the publicity of the “indefinite closure” — a term derived from a press release that he drafted — was a result of repeated extensions of the Yosemite Valley closure that began on July 25.

“We certainly want to get the park open and we’re not working it as an extended closure meaning months or years, but at the same time we felt, as the fire is going, these things happen and it could take a while,” he said.

The Yosemite Valley closure is the longest time the area has been inaccessible to the public since the 16-day shutdown of the federal government in 2013 that closed the entire park.

An evacuation of the Yosemite Valley for residents and employees has now been lifted, which Gediman indicated was a developing sign that the Valley could reopen again soon.

Stores and restaurants were being restocked, he said, but certain burning operations near Turtleback Dome were being evaluated before a public reopening was initiated.

“It’s a day-by-day process,” he said.

Gediman said there was no definitive timetable for when the Valley was expected to reopen, but officials were “endeavoring to get it open as soon as we can.”

Gediman recognized the frustration of the commercial enterprises surrounding Yosemite National Park and the responsibility park officials had in communicating their decisions to local political officials, such as Tuolumne County Supervisor John Gray, and the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.

“We are not in the tourism business, but we are. We look at it comprehensively and we all do well together as a big group,” he said. “Yosemite was definitely a huge attraction in the region and we understand the importance of the park to economic vitality.”

Gediman agreed that the advertisement of other sections of Yosemite National Park was a welcome alternative.

About 50 percent of summer guests are international travelers, compared to about 25 percent during rest of the year, he said. According to National Park Service data, 65,880 visitors passed through the Big Oak Flat entrance to the park in June, but information for July is not yet available.

The new normal

If the destructive trend of fire seasons increases, Anker said, the Highway 120 corridor community of businesses should be wary of the continuing trend of reduced of tourist traffic.

“These catastrophic fires used to be once in a lifetime and then it was every 10 years, then every five years, and now it seems every year,” he said. “I think it will hurt the state overall. I think people will stop coming to California if they think it's going to be an inferno every year.”

For some business, the strategic solutions were short-term in scope.

“I wouldn't call something we’re getting used to or normal. I don't want to say that, ever,” said Silveira, who said the Iron Door Saloon was offering earlier karaoke nights for family guests and preparing for the Labor Day holiday.

For others, the destruction of the Ferguson Fire enforced a realization that the entire tourist-reliant community must reevaluate their dependency on the summer season.

“We need to work about making Yosemite a destination during the winter as well as the summer,” Jen Edwards said. “That part is on us, getting the message out.”

And while the businesses continue to struggle in the aftermath of the Highway 120 closure, some are preparing for the inevitability that these fires — and their grave consequences — will be an annual phenomenon.

“I could deal with this once and while, but every year it’s something. It was the Rim Fire. It’s government shutdowns. It’s climate change. This is the new normal,” Anker said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.

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