Firefighters’ dollars offset tourist spending smoked out by wildfires

CLAYTON — On a recent crystal morning here, the only signs of the threat overhanging this small north Georgia town were the pale plume of smoke high over nearby Black Rock Mountain, and the thin stream of shoppers on Main Street’s sidewalks.

Dozens of wildfires have been burning up and down southern Appalachia’s spine for a month now, sometimes smoking up the region’s cities and towns from Macon to Charlotte.

For businesses in small mountain towns hoping to harvest a few more dollars before the waning fall tourist season winds down, the fires, surprisingly, haven’t been entirely bad news.

To be sure, worried tourists are calling, business people in Clayton and Helen say, and in some cases they’re steering clear of the region.

But the fires also have drawn hundreds of firefighters from as far away as Oregon and Hawaii, filling hotels and fast-food restaurants in Clayton and other nearby communities. Some businesses say their revenues are up this year as a result.

“When you have 45 [firefighters] walk in and order extra large meals, sales are up,” said Glenn Ahlstedt, general manager at the Burger King off U.S. 441, the main commercial strip through Clayton.

Next door, at the 60-room Day’s InnClayton, front desk manager Bruce Greeson said it’s real busy.

“We’ve been sold out,” he said, because the hotel has been full of firefighters for several days. “I don’t think any hotel businesses have suffered at all.”

Since the Rock Mountain fire was discovered on Nov. 9, ignited under suspicious circumstances, it has grown to more than 16,000 acres. Stretching from about nine miles northwest of Clayton into North Carolina, the blaze is now being battled by roughly 470 firefighters and support staff working out of a temporary command center in Clayton.

Stan Hinatsu, public information officer for Pacific Northwest Incident Managment Team No. 3, out of Oregon, said his team and other firefighter crews began rolling in a few days after the fire was discovered, and have filled up nearly every hotel in the area, plus a large campground.

On the toughest days, the firefighting effort’s budget is “right at $1 million a day,” he said, although much of that is to pay for several helicopters, water tankers and bulldozers that crews are running to contain the wildfire.

By the latest estimate, fire officials expect to contain the blaze by Dec. 15.

Meanwhile, not all businesses are seeing a windfall from the influx of fire crews.

With so many firefighters in town, “it has an impact,” said Kay NeSmith, manager of the Rabun County Chamber of Commerce’s welcome center. But “it’s not like having 500 tourists,” she added, who would be renting vacation homes and spending in Clayton’s restaurants and shops.

Up the hill from U.S. 441, in Clayton’s historic downtown, traffic is down for businesses that cater to tourists and the owners of the second homes on the mountains and lakes near town.

“It has had a dramatic effect. Fewer people in town,” said Donn Brous, manager of Main Street Gallery in Clayton, which specializes in self-taught artists’ works. “Why would you come up here when you shouldn’t be outside?”

Also, many of the national forest areas where people like to hike are closed due to the fire hazards, she added.

The fire hasn’t kept all visitors away.

Linton Holleman, of Macon, was strolling the downtown sidewalks with his son while the rest of his family shopped.

“The fire actually smoked up Macon [a week earlier]. We knew about the fires but we had made plans,” said Holleman, admissions director at a skilled nursing facility. “We were going to come no matter what.” He said they were headed home that evening after spending three days going to a play, shopping and sightseeing.

“Beautiful,” he said, despite the fires. “It was great.”

Mats and Berna Bengtson had come up from St. Petersburg, Fla., to stay in their vacation home in Dillard, seven miles north of Clayton.

They had heard about the forest fires in Georgia, but thought none were close to their second home.

“We just came up today and we smelled some fire,” said Mr. Bengtson, a business broker. He said he missed using his outdoor fireplace because of an area-wide fire ban, but they weren’t worried or planning to leave early.

“We probably would have come anyway,” said Mrs. Bengtson, who works in a shelter for abused children.

Brian Word, co-owner of Stekoa Creek Trading Co. in Clayton, surveyed the street.

“It feels weird,” he said. Last week business was “great” even though the street was blanketed in smoke, he said.

On this day the sky was bright blue and Black Rock Mountain was ablaze — with a blanket of gold, red and orange trees, that is — but there was only a scattering of shoppers.

“I think people are starting to stay away,” said Word.

Still, what occupied people’s thoughts most was the fire broiling several miles northwest of town, and the firefighters who arrived in town not long after.

“People want to do all they can to support them,” said Brous, at the art gallery. “It’s amazing to see people travel across the country to help little old Georgia with its fires.”

Several people interviewed said Clayton businesses and residents, to show their appreciation, have showered the firefighters with donated goods, discounts, or offers to pay for meals. Likewise, the city organized a Thanksgiving meal a day early at its municipal hall for the firefighters, many of them thousands of miles from home.

“The offer to help has just been incredible,” said Hinatsu, from The Dalles, Ore. People have donated so much fruit, energy bars, cakes, toiletries, socks and invitations to home-cooked meals that fire officials are now urging people to instead “help their local fire departments out. They were the first ones to the fire,” said Hinatsu.

“I’ve never been on a fire where the donations have been unmanageable,” he said. “We really, truly appreciate the outpouring of support.”

Mike Addington, pharmacist at the 69-year-old Clayton Pharmacy, said he can see why local residents want to do what they can to show they’re thankful for the firefighters. When he goes home after work, he can see the fire creeping closer on the ridgeline across the valley from his house.

“I can actually see the smoke boiling,” he said.

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