How Wildfires Are Affecting Tourism in Southern California
The tourism industry in Southern California is starting to bounce back, albeit slowly, following the wildfires that materialized seemingly out of nowhere over the last two weeks and affected areas throughout the region.
Although the fires are still burning in less inhabited areas, they’re burning out elsewhere. While some attractions and hotels have reopened, many are still closed.
But where the fire has been extinguished, the gradual reopening of businesses indicates a returning sense of normalcy — or perhaps a desire to move on as the holiday season enters full swing.
San Diego County, where the now-contained Lilac fire burned 4,100 acres, appears to have completely recovered: as of Thursday morning, only the Rancho Monserate Country Club had not reopened. According to Branden Halle, a public information officer for the Thomas fire who lives in San Diego County, people driving across the border to Mexico at Chula Vista will see normal traffic.
Candice Eley, the director of communications for the San Diego Tourism Authority, said that all of the country’s visitor attractions, such as the San Diego Zoo and Legoland, are open for business.
Other areas, too, have returned to their routines. Farther north, at Nobu Malibu, the destination beachfront sushi bar, a host who answered the phone did not know that a fire had affected the city at all. (A minor brush fire was quickly doused by firefighters on Dec. 7, with the help of some quick-thinking residents.) The restaurant is open for business as usual.
But the situation isn’t as positive in Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties, where the Thomas fire has burned more than 283,000 acres. Although the Red Flag Warning, which indicated Ventura’s peak vulnerability to wildfire, ended Friday morning, the state of emergency declared by California Governor Jerry Brown is still in effect.
Many vacationers who had planned trips to these destinations in the coming week have already canceled their reservations, according to front desk employees at a number of hotels in the region. They may have good reason to: as of Thursday afternoon, many attractions were still closed, the air was toxic, and hotel rooms were being used to house firefighters and residents who have had to evacuate their homes because of the fires.
In Santa Barbara, for example, several outdoor attractions are still closed because of dismal air conditions, including the Santa Barbara Harbor. (The Santa Barbara Zoo reopened today, after a three-day closure, offering free admission.) The Montecito Inn, a beachside hotel, is advising residents and visitors to stay indoors because of the poor air quality.
On the water, though, the smoke doesn’t seem to be as bad, said Glen Fritzler, the owner of Sea Landing, a company that offers fishing trips and whale watching tours out of Santa Barbara. Business was slower than usual and future reservations are down, but Sea Landing stayed open to honor existing reservations.
“Some people do love fishing and whale watching and will do anything to do it, and we’re trying to accommodate them,” Mr. Fritzler said. “To them, it’s a reprieve to get away from it.”
Also, more than three dozen businesses are open in downtown Santa Barbara, according to Visit Santa Barbara’s site, including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and Sama Sama Kitchen, a popular Southeast Asian restaurant.
Traveling around the area isn’t problematic: flights in and out of Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, which never closed, are running smoothly, and nearly all of the highways are operating at full capacity.
But Joe Rosa, a public information office for Cal Fire, said that the Thomas fire was only 30 percent contained as of Thursday morning and emphasized that drivers on the 101 Freeway, which straddles the Santa Barbara coastline, should make way for fire trucks and other emergency vehicles using the road.
Furthermore, Mr. Rosa said, a wind shift or spot fires across the highway could force firefighters to shut down sections of the 101 and the 126, a small highway that runs east-west through Ventura County, at any time. (State Route 154, an inland scenic route through Santa Barbara, will be closed daily from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m. until further notice). “We just want folks to keep their heads up, and their eyes open,” Mr. Rosa said.
South of Santa Barbara, Ventura County is still seeing a significant impact on its tourism industry because of the fires.
In the resort town of Ojai, for example, ashes continue to powder the scorched landscape. Last week, the Thomas fire scalded the town and threatened to close in on its center, forcing evacuations. A few days later, the wind swept the fire back.
Highway 150, which connects Ojai to the coastal city of Carpenteria, is still largely closed; drivers leaving Ojai can travel on Route 33 instead. And the air is still considered to be highly toxic: currently, Ojai’s particulate matter levels place it in the “Very Unhealthy” category on www.AirNow.gov, a national air-quality tracker.
This unhealthy air is part of the reason the Ojai Valley Inn, a 220-acre resort, closed on Dec. 9 and won’t reopen until Jan. 11, said Chris Kandziora, the property’s vice president of sales and marketing. “The fires didn’t touch our grounds at all, but we made the decision to close because they’re still encroaching on our area, and we want the entire town to be ready to welcome visitors,” he said. (The resort will undergo a cleaning and renovation while it is closed, he said).
Ojai Rancho Inn, on the other hand, reopened on Dec. 7 after being closed for three days, but Sheila Piala, the hotel’s manager, said that most of the guests are evacuees.
“I don’t know how much of a tourist attraction we are at the moment, but businesses are open, and they’re feeding people,” Ms. Piala said. “We opened up because so many people needed a place to go, and we’ve been safe, knock on wood.”
The fire isn’t stopping the inn from hosting its annual holiday crafts fair this weekend, although the event certainly will be held indoors.
One rung below Ojai at the “Unhealthy” level on AirNow is Camarillo, a city in Ventura County that is the home of Camarillo Premium Outlets, one of the largest outlet malls in the state.
But the particulate matter didn’t seem to deter Camarillo shoppers on Thursday. “It’s a little bit hazy,” said Jazmine Lucente, who works at an Adidas outlet store. “But no one’s really in danger. People are still shopping.” She added that some shoppers were wearing respirator masks outside.
Shivani Vora contributed reporting.