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Fires no threat to tourist areas

BOISE – Despite the destructive fire season, Idaho officials say most of the state’s tourist areas haven’t been affected – even if people think they have.

“Many of the wildfires are located in remote back-country areas, not where the majority of our recreation and tourism opportunities are located, and are not adversely impacting recreation,” said state tourism chief Carl Wilgus.

Still, the state is hearing from concerned outfitters whose guests are calling and wondering if they should cancel trips when they’re actually headed for areas that aren’t affected by the fires at all.

“People book trips and then they watch the national news, and they get the impression the entire state’s on fire,” said Ron Gardner, state Commerce Department spokesman.

Peter Grubb, owner of ROW Adventures, a Coeur d’Alene-based firm that runs river trips in three states, said he’s seen much worse in his 28 years in business.

“Some of our trips have had a day or two of really smoky conditions, but we try to put a positive spin on it and teach people about forest fire ecology and the fact that it’s a part of the natural ecosystem – turn it into a positive learning experience as opposed to negative,” Grubb said.

“We’ve been running trips for the last three weeks during all these fires, and evaluations are coming in with high marks – people are still having a great time.”

Grubb recalled years when rivers were closed because of fires. So far this year, the only change he’s had to make is in the fuel used for cooking along the riverbank. When fire restrictions banned briquettes for Dutch-oven cooking, his workers switched to gas.

“I would say so far the impact’s been very light,” Grubb said.

At state parks, fire restrictions have put a crimp on campfires and outdoor smoking, but camping has continued. State parks spokeswoman Jennifer Wernex said the popular Ponderosa State Park at McCall has experienced smoky conditions from wildfires in the area, but it’s too early to tell whether state park visitation overall will be affected by the fire season. Until late July, campfires were allowed in designated structures in many developed campgrounds.

Gardner said the Hells Canyon area has been affected by smoke and some road closures, but river trips have continued.

“There are campgrounds along the Salmon River that have been closed, but other than that, no big tourism attraction-type places have been affected,” he said. “The places that are affected right now are hiking trails and stuff like that in the backcountry – it’s not the kind of thing that attracts massive numbers of people.”

Idaho has had a huge number of acres burning, but it also has a huge number of acres total, Gardner noted.

“There’s 53.4 million acres of land in Idaho,” he said. Even with the extensive wildfires, less than 2 percent of Idaho’s land mass has been involved.

Grant Simonds, executive director of the Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, said outfitters and guides continue to conduct river and backcountry trips.

“We are closely monitoring the wildfire and smoke conditions in affected areas,” Simonds said. “We continue to stay in close contact with our visitors and industry partners to insure the safety of our clients,” he said.

“I’d say definitely still plan to make your trip, because unless you were planning on doing a hike out in the wilderness of the Frank Church River of No Return area, the chances are anything else you’ve got planned, whether it’s a raft trip or camping in a state park or anything like that, it’s still going to be just fine,” he said.

Wernex encouraged people to call ahead before they go to see if conditions have changed.

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