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Lake Fire singes Big Bear's troubled tourism industry

A helicopter flies over the Lake Fire Thursday afternoon off Jenks Lake Road in the San Bernardino National Forest.
Stuart Palley for KPCC
A helicopter flies over the Lake Fire off Jenks Lake Road in the San Bernardino National Forest last Thursday, June 18, 2015. Firefighters have been filling up helicopters using ponds normally reserved for making snow in the winter at Big Bear Mountain Resorts.

Father’s Day weekend is normally a quiet time for the Big Bear Mountain Resorts, but last weekend was particularly slow.

The nearby Lake Fire, spanning more than 27 square miles, has not threatened safety in the popular summer recreation areas surrounding Big Bear Lake, but it has slowed down business for some key parts of the local economy.

Easterly winds have carried most of the Lake Fire’s harmful smoke away from the tourist destination.

“The valley’s been fine. In fact, it’s been beautiful up here,” said Clayton Shoemaker, marketing director for Big Bear Mountain Resorts. “Big Bear is a safe place to visit right now. We’re not feeling the threat or the danger of the fire, but we are seeing it in our numbers.”

Compared to last year's Father's Day weekend, the Resorts' ticket sales were down 35 percent, Shoemaker said.

Whether it’s due to fear of smoke or flames, the Lake Fire has dealt another blow to a tourism industry already faltering in 2015. The drought left this year’s winter slopes parched, temperatures often climbed too high even for fake snow, and an unseasonable May storm forced a pro-cycling tour to relocate to Santa Clarita.

Jeff Hester, author of the SoCalHiker blog, said the Lake Fire arrives at a time when the industry is itching to make up 2015’s lost business.

“They’re working to try to drum up more tourism for the summer. With a shortened ski season, they need to attract more people up there,” Hester told KPCC.

Even though the fire has not imperiled Big Bear, tourists' fear has rippled through the economy — especially the lodging industry. For Ryan Vasquez, general manager of the Big Bear Frontier hotel, the numbers have plummeted. As the blaze grew last weekend, families with children cancelled their reservations for fear of smoke.

“A lot of people did kind of jump the gun early and cancel,” Vasquez said, though the inn made up some of those losses once the air cleared on Friday.

This next weekend might be even worse for the Big Bear Frontier inn. A softball tournament was set to start Friday at Big Bear High School, but firefighters have transformed that field into an Incident Command Post for Cal Fire, San Bernardino County Fire and the County Sheriff’s Department.

The softball tournament was called off, and a spate of cancellations followed.

“In terms of reservation," Vasquez said, "we’re probably gonna lose about 80 percent of our occupancy this weekend." 

As of Tuesday, a smoke advisory remains in effect for areas that might be downwind of the Lake Fire. The South Coast Air Quality Management District expects the smoke to create periods of “unhealthy” air in eastern Riverside County and the eastern San Bernardino Mountains — an area that includes Big Bear.

Air quality officials recommend keeping windows closed and avoiding exertion for the duration of the smoke warning. Older adults, children and people with heart disease and respiratory illnesses should keep indoors.

Michael Kostiuk, owner of Big Bear’s Murray’s Saloon and Eatery, said it feels as if the worst has passed for his town.

“The smoke has affected us probably no more than six hours out of the whole fire,” he said. Despite ill effects for the area’s hotels, Kostiuk was surprised to find his bar full of people last weekend.

He said, chalking it up to triple-digit temperatures at lower elevations, “I suspect the heat was so high down the hill, people were willing to drive up here anyway.”

You can get more information on the fire using KPCC's Fire Tracker: 

Fire Tracker: Lake Fire