What happens when a fire scares tourists? Oakhurst copes, takes care of firefighters

As the Ferguson Fire continues to devour wild land outside Yosemite National Park, businesses in nearby communities like Oakhurst are weathering the storm of lost revenue caused by the massive blaze.

Thursday was the second day visitors were not allowed inside the popular Yosemite Valley section of the park. Officials closed the area, plus evacuated tourists and some employees due to hazardous smoke from the fire just outside the park.

That has a significant impact on business, and there is no doubt the areas around Yosemite consider tourism their lifeline. Visit Yosemite CEO Rhonda Salisbury said Madera County generated more than $36 million last year from lodging alone, 90 percent coming from the areas now blanketed in smoke and ash from the Ferguson Fire.

Consequently, businesses in Oakhurst are feeling the pain, as the typically steady stream of customers has dried up significantly. Tourists have thinned out in Oakhurst and even some local residents have left after Highway 41 was closed from Wawona just inside the national park’s entrance to the tunnel leading into Yosemite Valley.

“We rely heavily on our tourists to enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Yosemite,” said Therese Williams, spokeswoman at Visit Yosemite Madera County, the area’s visitor’s center. Her hope is that fire and forest officials can have Yosemite Valley back open on Sunday.

“It’s definitely not the summer that we’re used to,” Williams said.

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The Ferguson fire swelled to 43,299 acres by Thursday morning after burning 1,723 acres overnight, authorities reported. More than 5,000 structures are threatened. One firefighter has been killed, while seven others have been injured.

A community meeting is planned for 6 p.m. Thursday at Mariposa Fairgrounds’ Sequoia Hall. Officials are expected to give an overview of the firefighting effort.

While tourists set their sights elsewhere for summer getaways, some locals in Oakhurst just looked to get away from the smoke for health reasons, said Williams.

Phones at the fully-staffed visitor’s center were ringing more than usual this week, as tourists wondered where they could go, now that Yosemite was hardly an option. Some visitors also arrived in person with the same question, Williams said. That doesn’t always mean those tourists stay in the area. Some have opted for destinations away from Oakhurst.

“So it’s definitely a quieter time for business definitely when there’s a fire in our backyard,” Williams said.

Still, Williams said there is a lot to do in the mountain communities of eastern Madera County. There’s a list of attractions, events and restaurants on the visitor center’s website.

Alyssa Lucas agreed. She co-owns The Cool Bean Cafe in Oakhurst with her husband and said she’s trying to stay optimistic that business will pick up on Sunday. Her loyal customers these days are firefighters.

Lucas considered the past few days “unusually slow for a summer day.”

However, not all business has left. Locals appreciate that firefighters look to Oakhurst businesses for their food and drink options. One woman gave Lucas’ cafe a gift card that she asked to be used to pay for firefighters’ meals, Lucas said Thursday.

Casey Hawkins, owner of South Gate Brewing Company, has also seen fewer customers at his business as well as less tourism to the area in general after the closure at Yosemite. Like Lucas, Hawkins said he’s glad to be open and provide food for firefighters and park workers. Hawkins also planned to unveil a new beer Thursday afternoon.

“We’re expecting to have our local community come in and we’re expecting to have some tourism come through here that’s still left in town,” Hawkins said. He said he’s checked up on workers and has kept his doors and windows well shut to keep the smoke out.

The weekly Rotary Club meeting at Oakhurst’s El Cid Mexican restaurant saw sparse attendance, according to Madera County District 5 Supervisor Tom Wheeler.

He was there Wednesday when 10 to 12 people were at the eatery. The usual count is around 30, Wheeler said.

Alice Leaf, who manages Reimer’s Candies, Gifts and Ice Cream in Oakhurst, said she knows a thing or two about having business affected by closures at Yosemite. She witnessed the effects of a 2013 government shutdown as well as the hantavirus scare in 2015, which hurt tourism, she said.

Being a former business owner in the area, Leaf knows small towns around Yosemite depend on the national park’s attractions in order to survive.

“Once that park shut down and Bass Lake is getting smoked out, what do we have to offer?” Leaf said Thursday.

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Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez; William Ramirez: 559-341-3416, @TheSierraStar
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