July 11, 2008

California Tourism Fighting Fires, Too

By Laura Bly

Even as more than 300 uncontained wildfires burn across Northern and Central California and a storied stretch of the Big Sur coast probably will stay off-limits to visitors through early next week, the state's tourism industry is scrambling to reassure vacationers that most hotels, attractions and campgrounds are open and unaffected.

About 1,700 wildfires have scorched more than 1,000 square miles and nearly 100 homes in the state since a lightning storm struck more than two weeks ago.

In the Big Sur area, the 3-week-old Basin Complex fire has charred more than 140 square miles of hillsides and canyons. A portion of Highway One reopened to residents this week, but the coastal road remains closed to visitors about 15 miles south of Carmel between Andrew Molera State Park and Lucia Lodge. The evacuation has shuttered five popular state parks and such landmarks as the Post Ranch Inn, Ventana Inn & Spa and Esalen Institute, a retreat center famous for its New Age vibe and ocean vistas.

No hotels, restaurants or other commercial structures have been damaged by the wildfire, which has been restricted to the east side of Highway One. Based on cool, foggy weather near the coast and projections that the fire will be contained by July 30, Highway One -- and affected Big Sur businesses -- could reopen as early as next week, says U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Leanne Langeberg. But, she says, that could change because there are still some hot spots along the highway.

Just north of Santa Barbara, the Gap Fire has burned about 15 square miles since July 1. Though the coastal town has experienced periods of ash, smoke and power outages, the blaze is more than 50% contained and is burning to the north, away from populated areas. All major roads, including Highway 101 and Highway 154 to the Santa Ynez Valley, remain open, as do the wineries made famous in the Hollywood hit Sideways.

Although they haven't been threatened by wildfires, such popular tourist draws as San Francisco, Carmel, Lake Tahoe and Yosemite Valley have been intermittently shrouded by smoke since the blazes began last month. In general, "the closer to the coast, the better off you are, but it can change by the hour," says Dimitri Stanich of the California Air Resources Board, which is recommending suspension of outdoor activities in much of Northern California through this weekend.

For the 50% of guests who haven't canceled trips to Big Sur's Treebones Resort 12 miles south of the Highway One closure, the fires have sparked a renewed respect for the area's uncompromising beauty, says owner John Handy.

"What people love about Big Sur is its drama," he says. "It's one more thing that reminds us humans are not in control." (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>