“We’re suffering greatly,” says Kim Cason, who owns and operates The Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant in Chimney Rock with her husband, Don Cason. During Veterans Day weekend last year, the inn was fully booked when the Casons and their guests were among those ordered to evacuate as the Party Rock Fire threatened the area. And though the fire has long since been extinguished, the occupancy rate hasn’t come back up.
“The loss of business has impacted everybody,” says Don, who’s also executive director of the Rutherford County Tourism Development Authority. Local enterprises, he estimates, have seen a 50-70 percent drop.
Even that severe decline, notes Don, pales compared with the “devastation that hit Gatlinburg,” where the combination of wildfire, high winds and a monthslong drought killed 14 people, injured hundreds of others and destroyed thousands of structures. Nonetheless, the impact is real. For tourism-based economies across Western North Carolina, November is often the last big push before winter kicks in and tourist dollars drop off. The Party Rock Fire, he continues, “definitely hit at a bad time.”
But at this point, the couple note, the perception problem may be worse than what the fire actually did. “I don’t know what people think,” says Kim. “You know, it was a very slow-moving fire that really cleaned up our forest beds. There’s places you wouldn’t even know we had a fire.”
Ironically, this wasn’t the inn’s first brush with combustion. Built in 1891, the hostelry burned down in 1917. Rebuilt on the original foundation, it was once again destroyed by fire in 1997. The current structure reflects the character of those earlier versions.
The Casons, though, worry that misconceptions about the fire’s impact could continue to suppress business next spring. Although there are some dead trees and burnt underbrush, says Don, “We’ve got to let people know that our vistas are good. We’re back in business.”
Feeling the burn
Linda Harbuck, executive director of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce in Macon County, tells a similar story. People throughout the country, she says, “were hearing about the fires and seeing them on the national news, and they thought we were burning up.”
In Swain County, Wildwater Nantahala was also hit hard. “Those wildfires really closed out the season for us,” says Trey Barnett, regional marketer for the outdoor adventure company. Smoke filled the gorge for several days, he says, resulting in a “significant number of cancellations.”
Still, Barnett considers Bryson City fortunate in that the fires caused no structural damage. And like the Casons, he stresses, “You don’t see a lot of what was left by the fires. The things you do see are the controlled burns that firefighters did around the buildings.”
Nick Breedlove, the director of Jackson County’s Tourism Development Authority, says occupancy tax collections were down 1.5 percent in November compared with the previous year. But he cautions against attributing the decline entirely to the fires. “I think we fared OK,” he says. “The smoke was a concern for a few days, but our fires were relatively small compared with neighboring fires.” And since November, adds Breedlove, the county has had a number of well-attended local festivals.
Alex Bell, who owns AB’s Fly Fishing Guide Service in Sylva, agrees that for the most part, Jackson County was spared. But the smoke did cause “around a half-dozen, maybe up to 10 cancellations,” he reports. “It was a significant number for a business of my size.”
An eye-opening experience
The Fire Mountain Inn is perched atop the Highlands Plateau. On a clear day, visibility extends 50 miles, notes co-owner Hiram Wilkinson. And though a handful of guests called to ask about the wildfires before their arrival, there was only one cancellation.
Wilkinson remembers evenings spent watching the nearby Rock Mountain Fire. “You could actually see the fire burning on top of the ridges,” he says. And while his guests were intrigued by the flames, for Wilkinson, it was horrifying.
“We knew what it was doing, how close it was and how much acreage around us was being affected. I don’t think anybody up here ever dreamed this could happen to us,” he continues. “I think it’s made us really wake up — that it not only can happen here, but it probably will happen again.”
Ron Nalley, Lake Lure’s town manager, hopes the memory of the Party Rock Fire will have a lasting impact on residents’ behavior. Before the evacuations, he notes, burn bans were openly ignored. And one takeaway from the fire, he believes, is the need for better communication. “We’ve got to try and let town folks know why it’s important not to do things during those times. … Hopefully, it’s something people will pay more attention to in the future.”
Help is on the way
In a Dec. 13 special session, the N.C. General Assembly passed the Disaster Recovery Act of 2016; Gov. Pat McCrory signed it two days later. The $201 million package will assist those affected by the wildfires as well as other natural calamities. More than $25 million will go toward forest restoration, with another $1 million allocated to the Department of Insurance’s Office of State Fire Marshal. According to the act, the Department of Commerce will receive $250,000 to assess, “in consultation with the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, the need for business assistance funds for businesses affected by Hurricane Matthew, the western wildfires and Tropical Storms Julia and Hermine.” The Division of Emergency Management will get $11.5 million for resilient redevelopment planning; the remainder of the money is earmarked for small-business loans, cleanup and rebuilding efforts, and replenishing the state’s Emergency Response and Disaster Relief Fund.
In November, VisitNC, the state’s official tourism website, also began offering free assistance to tourism businesses affected by the wildfires and Hurricane Matthew, including display advertising on the site, travel deals, highlighted event listings and social media posts. The program is available for core tourism businesses such as lodgings, attractions and restaurants that were closed for at least five business days.
So far, seven mountain-area partners have inquired about the program, with two approved for benefits. “We would love to add to that number,” says Eleanor Talley, VisitNC’s public relations manager. “It’s important for us to convey that we’re open for business, that you can still come to Western North Carolina and that we’d love to have you here.”
Paying it forward
Meanwhile, The Esmeralda Inn is running a First Responders Appreciation Special. Through March, firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians can stay for half-price. The deal will continue through June with a 30 percent discount. These offers are not available on weekends and holidays.
Kim Cason points out that the promotion is mutually beneficial. “We need the business, and they did so much for us. It’s a way to say thank you.”