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Yosemite Tourist Towns Lose Millions Of Dollars In Business As Ferguson Firefight Continues

Noah Berger / AP Photo

The Ferguson Fire burns along a ridgeline in unincorporated Mariposa County, Calif, on Monday, July 16, 2018.

Noah Berger / AP Photo

Jerry's Motel sits on Highway 120 in Oakdale, which is about 90 minutes west of Yosemite. It has a coat of fresh, pale yellow paint, a recent renovation, and a good location for tourists. But on a recent weekday, there weren’t many tourists.

"We are usually sold out,” said Jeremy Blackwell, the hotel’s manager. He says the occupancy rate has decreased by about two-thirds since the Ferguson Fire started July 13.

"Now, we're maybe only getting one or two bookings a day from the Yosemite area traveling," he said. And that's with online discounts of up to $20 a night. All told, it's a loss of about $560 for the day.

Blackwell hoped for more of a short-term boost of people spending the night after the National Park Service closed Yosemite Valley on July 25 due to smoke. But the customers didn't come.

When the park shut down, campers and lodgers at hotels in Yosemite scattered. The uptick Blackwell was hoping for reached Groveland, though, which is just outside the park on Highway 120.

"What we're getting is people that are up here on their vacation that are in other areas of Yosemite that are getting smoked out or are having to move," said Jo Ellen Allen, an assistant innkeeper at the Hotel Charlotte and Groveland Hotel.

Michelle Bi and her daughter Katelyn had just sat down to a game of Monopoly in the hotel lobby. "Kinda not so easy,” is how Michelle described her experience at Yosemite before it closed. “It's so hazy in the park. Too much smoke. Too much smoke. We didn't go to the Half Dome. We didn't go to the valley at all."

They went on to San Francisco the next day, instead. Many others have also changed their plans. Today, occupancy at Hotel Charlotte is at 70 percent, which is 30 percent below normal.

The fire in the park wasn’t ideal for business along Highway 120, but at least the highway was open during the Ferguson firefight — that is, until Thursday, when it was also closed. South of the park, Highway 140 has been closed since July 13, the day the fire started. That's taken a bite out of the tourism trade in the town of Mariposa.

It's hard to guess the economic cost of a road closure, even for Jonathan Farrington with the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. He says it could be in the millions of dollars just for the month.

"Lodging revenue for the county can be over $10 million. So, a loss of complete occupancy which we have not seen yet could be as much as $300,000 a day in lost revenues," he said.

This isn't new for the town. The fire comes on the heels of two rockslides and the Detwiler Fire in 2017. That fire destroyed homes and closed down the town for four days.

Cal Fire says this summer's large blazes have grown faster and are becoming more frequent than ever before.

Mariposa County, home to Yosemite Valley, has launched a website to help residents who have been affected. During the height of the evacuations, many people spent their mornings helping others move valuable property or evacuate horses. Some businesses, like the Mariposa Hotel Inn, offered more.

"Overall, I've had like a dozen cancellations in the last 24 hours. So, we are totally empty for tonight,” innkeeper Mary Foster said the day of the Yosemite Valley evacuation.

But then an idea came to her: “So, if firefighters need a place to stay, they're welcome to come here.  If anybody's displaced or evacuated, come on down here, we have rooms."

Larry Funderburg owns the Mariposa Marketplace, which sells Hawaiian shirts and candles and assorted knickknacks. He says business is down about 10 percent from two years ago.

"We have our events. Every month there's something going on up here and the turnout's usually pretty good. During the week with the park being closed or not being able to get into it, it just really hurts local businesses," Funderburg said.

Mike Radanovich owns the Fremont House down the street. He's thankful for the locals doing a little extra clothes shopping this summer.

"There's been a lot of locals coming in and people from the valley who just come up to Mariposa to help support it because they know we're going through a real hard time right now,” Radanovich said. “We got a lot of really faithful customers who love this town, which is awesome."

As the fire burned closer to residential neighborhoods on July 25, traffic through town was light. Occasionally, a local would drive through. But Alba Estrela had the town mostly to herself on what would normally be a bustling summer morning. She's from Spain and was disappointed the park was so smoky that it was difficult to see.

She said she planned to come back, But for now, she was going to buy something to remember the trip. “I'm going to buy a T-shirt," she said.

It's a drop in the bucket, but a drop that's much appreciated.

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