By Steve Hubrecht

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The threat posed by the major wildfires still flickering in the Columbia Valley has been dimming since mid-August, and has now receded even further thanks to cool weather and a decent burst of rain last week. But in a case of financial damage instead of physical damage, while the flames crackled and smoke billowed, the valley’s tourism industry — a key part of the local economy — took a hit during a time (the busy summer period) when it is normally at its peak.

Several local officials explained to the Pioneer that even when the trio of fires (collectively known as the Horsethief Complex) were no longer at risk of sweeping through the valley, provincial travel restrictions unfortunately lumped the East Kootenay region in with other parts of the B.C. Interior (which at the time faced much higher risks). This compounded an already difficult situation for local tourism operators and accommodators.

“There definitely has been an impact,” said Pete Bourke from the Columbia Valley Chamber of Commerce, adding this stemmed from both the fires and the travel restrictions. “Sometimes the messaging (about the travel restrictions) seemed to be more broad and not necessarily specific to an area.”

Invermere Mayor Al Miller offered similar opinions.

“Absolutely there’s been an economic impact. There’s been a lot of room cancellations and the wildfires and smoke were behind that . . . people have decided to cancel their trips to Invermere. Even though the community has been fairly busy this summer, the accommodation industry has been hurt, and I’ve heard from a lot of people. It’s been tough.”

Miller said it was “a little frustrating (that later in the summer) the East Kootenay wasn’t in the same situation as other areas of B.C. in terms of fires. People could have travelled to our area, and enjoyed some activities as long as they stayed away from the problem areas (the restricted areas surrounding the actual fires). But the restrictions applied to us anyway, at least initially.”

In Radium Hot Springs, Tourism Radium executive director Jessica Fairhart concurred that “there definitely has been an impact” but also pointed out that “in the broad scope of the year there have been some positives . . . overall it has been a relatively strong summer. We’ve seen the return of U.S. visitors and the return of international visitors.”

Radium Mayor Mike Gray also owns the Horsethief Creek Pub and Eatery and estimated that, while the Horsethief Creek fire on Mount Bruce was burning and casting significant amounts of smoke over the valley, business at the pub was down “10 to 25 per cent depending on the day, and that plunged to 50 per cent during the travel restrictions . . . the travel restrictions were definitely a thing in terms of economic impact.”

Gray was quick to add that he completely understands and supports the need for such travel restrictions  when they are necessary, and said he heard that in some other parts of B.C. it was hard to find any kind of accommodation for wildland firefighters on hand to battle fires.

“If BCWS needs places to stay, or if residents under evacuation orders are displaced, yes, of course we will set down our economy and make sure they are covered,” said Gray. “But, in this case, the problem was that the rooms and resources were not needed for firefighters or for evacuees, and in the end our economy paid a sort of collateral damage.”

Both Miller and Gray were quick to credit Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Doug Clovechok for his hard work to have the travel restrictions lifted for the East Kootenay, and said his efforts helped make sure the associated economic hit did not become a prolonged slump.

Gray said that currently, with the fires much abated and the restrictions long since lifted, business at the pub is still “slower than normal, but it’s not catastrophic.”