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Business owners and local leaders: Challenges and recovery of Royal Gorge Fire

Posted at 1:48 PM, Jun 15, 2023

CAÑON CITY — At Colorado Jeep Tours, guests can uniquely experience Fremont County.

"Everybody wants to go for a ride in a Jeep," said owner Will Colon. "We take people out on interpretive scenic tours."

He had just launched the new business a few months before the Royal Gorge Fire broke out in the summer of 2013.

"And I can remember standing in the parking lot, and watching the plume of smoke come up over the mountain, and just thinking about the summer and where's it going to go from here."

He wasn't alone in feeling overwhelmed.

"You do have to pause for a moment and actually try and digest everything that's going on and realize, my goodness, everything that I've worked for in my entire life could be a loss in a matter of moments," said Andy Neines, owner of Echo Canyon River Expeditions.

He recalled watching in awe from his parking lot as the fire burned right across US Hwy 50.

"I really did sleep out front of my organization here and I watched the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park burn to the ground," Neines said.

Tourism generates around $72 million annually in the Royal Gorge Region. The Bridge and Park is the largest attraction, drawing an estimated 350,000 visitors at the time.

Mike Bandera was General Manager of the Royal Gorge Bridge and Park in 2013. He said the park evacuated 1,200 guests and 200 employees in about 45 minutes when the fire happened.

Half an hour later, nearly every building in the park was burning.

"It ended up burning 48 out of the 52 buildings to the ground," Bandera recalled.

County Commissioners Debbie Bell and Tim Payne drove to the fire incident command station.

"There was a group of firefighters at the bridge wetting the planks down trying desperately to keep them from catching on fire," Bell remembered.

"We heard the call in, we can no longer defend, we are withdrawing, and it was just it truly was, it still gives me goosebumps. I mean, it was absolutely heartbreaking."

Fortunately, the bridge was spared. Although, some planks burned and needed to be replaced. Bell and other local leaders signed a major disaster declaration that day.

"We got that going so that any kind of help that might be available, financial help would be available," she said.

Bandera said the park was also developing a recovery plan as the fire burned.

"The planning had already started by the end of that day," he sai.

The first step was demolition. The cable from the tram fell into the canyon blocking the path of the Royal Gorge Route Railroad and creating a safety hazard for rafting guides.

The summer of 2013 was difficult. A study later revealed that tourism revenue fell by 15 percent. Bandera said the park laid off 190 employees.

Neines remembered the phones ringing constantly that June with guests canceling rafting trips.

He, Colon, and business owners in the tourism industry in Fremont County found strength in each other.

"It's good to have friends at a point like that because you really do feel like you're all alone having to make some really difficult decisions," Neines said.

"Even though we're competitors, we're still friends," added Colon.

Bell remembers how those business owner leaned into the recovery, spending more on advertising, not less.

"They did everything in their power to bring people, to continue bringing people to visit Fremont County," she said.

And the guests returned later that summer, many of them curious to see the scope of the damage.

"Black waterfalls were coming off of the Royal Gorge, the river ran a very interesting color there for a little while," Neines said.

Colon received special permission to use the bridge during reconstruction.

"I had so many people calling us that wanted to see the destruction, they wanted to see the burn scar, its history," said Colon.

An insurance policy covered most of the $30 million it cost to rebuild the park. Bandera explained the contractor for the project was also the architect, designing and building at the same time to speed up the process.

Bell said that city and county officials worked hand-in-hand to expedite permits and inspections.

"We all came together, we had meetings, made the decisions quick, stuck with those decisions, and kept things moving," Bandera said.

In May 2015, less than 2 years after the fire, the park officially reopened.

"There was record-breaking attendance, every year up until COVID," Bandera recalled.

"We really needed to come together, and I think we did a fabulous job of that," added Bell. "I am so proud of my community, I can't even tell you."

"As cliche as it is, it really is a phoenix rising story, it truly is," said Neines.

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