Over the last few weeks I’ve been following the Colorado fires from my PC. I get to watch video, read stories immediately as they break and see eye witness photos. The scenes look frightening and the impact devastating. But is it the reality? Is modern media sensationalizing events, to the point where they actually heap more damage on the local communities?
In the below interview we get to read the story of Scott Downs, owner of Eagle Fire Lodge, a 17 room lodge in Woodland Park, Colorado. I happened by chance to hear him telling his story on Public Radio here in the US a couple of days ago. Hearing how the fires (or media?) have affected his business, and sensing the passion and energy he’s summoned to deal with it all, moved me to contact him and ask if he’d be willing to take part in an interview for Getaway Earth. What I discovered through the process was a man who quickly realized the importance of fighting back, of using the very media who he feels have hurt his business, to try and recover from the crisis.
Tell us a little about yourself and the area in which you live and work
Eagle Fire Lodge is a 17 room lodge that offers a very high end experience at a price point that gives most people the opportunity to choose this style of lodging instead of a standard motel room. We are located in Woodland Park, Colorado, a community of 8,000 people completely surrounded by the 1.1 million acre Pike National forest. Colorado is an international attraction, and Pikes Peak is at the top of the list. We are 18 miles west of Colorado Springs, Colorado on highway 24. Highway 24 is a four lane highway into the mountains and is the second most travelled highway in the state leading into the mountains. In the summer months the traffic counts on this highway range from 60,000 vehicles to 80,000 vehicles per day, and therefore is a generator for much commerce in our community.
Woodland Park sits at the base of Pikes Peak, “America’s Mountain”, which climbs to 14,125′ above sea level, and is the landscape we all fell in love with. Woodland Park us uphill and upwind from Colorado Springs. The fire we are discussing, the Waldo Canyon Fire, reached a total of 18,300 acres, a fraction of the 1.1 million acres of the Pike National Forest. This fire was devastating to the Colorado Springs side of the fire, but was non existent to the Woodland Park side of the fire. All prayers go the the 346 families that lost their homes, and the families of the two fire deaths. I am a retired Colorado Springs firefighter which gives me a unique view of the area impacts from many different levels, and am now a happy lodge owner. This is a story about unintended consequences so for the remainder, I will focus on the business side of your questions, and thank all of your readers ahead of time letting me lay the ground work to understand my response to your questions.
The recent devastating Colorado fires are well known to those living in the US, but perhaps you could explain to those outside the US the scenes of the last few days and weeks?
Colorado is in my opinion the most beautiful state in the entire United States. We have it all here and because of that, much of the commerce state wide is based in the tourism industry. Some communities depend on a higher percentage of these tourism dollars than the others. These communities are usually in the much desirable small mountain communities in the state. These same communities have about 110 days per year to make as much as 60% of their total gross income.
Colorado is also in the American west which experiences drought conditions about once every 10 years. During these times of drought, we have fires that get larger, faster, and bigger than the normal years. In these same drought years, our winds come from the desert southwest 700 miles to our west, causing the humidity and moisture content of the plants to drop. It’s a good recipe for fires. This year is a drought year and has experienced fires very similar to the last drought year in 2002. The point here is that we did have fires, but it was not uncommon to drought year fire behavior. The big game changer in recent fires has nothing to do with the fire, but everything to do with the media outlets, social media, facebook, etc. Never before has the entire world been able to watch firsthand an event unfold before their very eyes live. This live feed is fast and very emotional to the viewer when viewing large active fires of any kind. The media personnel assigned to these live feeds cant get information fast enough to explain the current fire behaviour, so they fill the voids with all manner of statements and opinions. In the case of this fire, this was a big part in the misconception that Colorado was in peril due to fire. Not True.
The fires have clearly had a devastating human effect on the local communities. As a business owner, how have the fires affected your cabin rental and lodge business?
This fire began on Saturday June 23rd at noon, on a hot windy day, half way between Colorado Springs and Woodland Park along the highway 24 corridor. Within 3 hrs, this fire was over 1,000 acres and traveling north east toward Colorado Springs as fast as 1 mile per hr at its peak. Because this fire was located in a high traffic area, and an area with literally thousands of viewing points to watch the fire, we had national media on hand in multiple locations reporting this “natural disaster”. By Sunday evening, the highway had been shut down and remained so for a week. Reports were going out speculating from media personnel that this fire could grow to 200,000 acres etc. Then Tuesday at 4PM, there was a combination of S/W winds at 25 mph and outflow winds from a large dry thunderstorm that caused 65 mph winds in the Colorado Springs side of the fire which took out 346 homes that were built into the forest edge and interface zone. With the heavy forest fuels, wind, and proximity of the homes, there was no way to save them.
This event caused the next level of media circus which would have you believe that all of Colorado was on fire, and just not safe. One reporter in New York stated to 5 million people that it would be much safer to stay out of all the western states. This is like saying you shouldn’t go to the beach because sharks live in the ocean. They had sensational video on this fire and created sensational words to follow. Most of it was untrue, but in this case we just can’t get the Genie back in the bottle.
On Wednesday morning after the big blow up on the Colorado Springs west side, the fire was calm and progress was being made toward getting as much as 15% containment. It didn’t matter. There was such an advanced state of “we will protect you at all costs” emanating from local, regional, and state officials, that at one point we had almost 40,000 people evacuated in Colorado Springs and Woodland Park. Eagle Fire Lodge was never evacuated, but to anyone outside of Woodland Park, which would be the whole rest of the world, we were on fire!
Eagle Fire lodge gross income from June 23rd to September 15th represent 50% of annual income. On Sunday June 24th, the day after the fire started, we began to experience cancellations, and it only got worse through the week. During this same time period, we average 92% occupancy of which 80% of that is reservations. As of this writing, we have lost 65% of those reservations, and are looking at as much as a 25% drop in gross revenue. For those of you out there in this industry that own unique properties, you know that you live and die on your return clients and the reservations booked. 25% doesn’t translate to 25% less you can take home to your family, but instead, it means you won’t be taking anything home to the family and will need to borrow money to float the business until next years season.
Wow that’s some loss of business. If everyone in your community suffers in a similar way, the impact on local business must be huge?
This is just one small businesses story. Factor in all the other motels, all the restaurants, the grocery stores that not only lost income but lost meats and produce, a Wal-Mart shut down, all the auto parts stores, most of the gas stations, a local hospital, and the list goes on. The only bright spot was the liquor stores remained open. When the highway shut down, it cut Woodland Park off from Colorado Springs which is the supply line for employees and product. The alternative was a 2 1/2 hr one way trip of which half is a dirt road. We are stimulating that the loss to the local government agencies will be in the millions.
How are you addressing the challenge?
The same media outlets, social media, facebook, that had a hand in whipping the Colorado story into a frenzy, are now positioned to be your new ally and champion of this new mission to get your business back. Ten years ago we had the Hayman Fire here that also didn’t come near our town, but destroyed business none the less. I was the President of the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce at the time, and learned a great deal through that experience. I want to pass on to all of you that, because you are in business for yourself, your DNA is not wired to ask for help. Neither is mine. In hindsight we should have asked for help sooner and more often. I hope you never have to deal with this but, if you do, take advantage. Even while the weather or tragic event is in progress, tap into the medias need to solve problems on film and get yourself in front of a camera or a microphone. Overload your market with information on why they should help you and your community, and do it in a message that lets your new guest know that they are shopping, recreating, or staying over night in a great atmosphere and helping the entire community by just being there. People are amazing that way. I did an interview on National Public Radio two days ago. They let me showcase the town and my lodge. This interview was at 7:30 in the morning. By 3PM we had three new reservations totaling 11 days, and as of this writing, have 19 days booked. All of these clients mentioned the radio spot. 19 days is not huge in the scope of the loss, but it represents 19 days worth of income I don’t have to borrow to get through the winter which puts me that much closer to paying off a loan I haven’t even applied for yet.
To those people who had considered canceling their travel plans to the area, what would you say?
To all of our loyal friends and clients that had to cancel their vacation trip this year, we at Eagle Fire Lodge will only miss you until next year when we see you again. To those that may still be thinking their vacation is at risk, use the Internet and the information available from local outlets to base your decision, and call directly for updates from the staff of your travel destination. And to all those we have yet to meet, we are open for business and can’t wait to welcome you to the Eagle Fire Lodge family. To Andy, thanks for reaching out to me after the NPR interview and giving this opportunity to share this recent experience with other like minded business people around the world.
We thank Scott for sharing his story. It goes without saying that Scott would love to hear from you. A booking would be great, but simply spreading his story and leaving words of encouragement I’m sure would be very welcome! If you would like to book a stay at Eagle Fire Lodge, Scott Downs can be reached at +1.719.687.5700 or via his website. Thanks for reading! And please do share your own stories…
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