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South Lake Tahoe

South Lake Tahoe’s usually bustling Highway 50 stands empty after mandatory evacuation orders. Photograph: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Wildfires spell a threat to the tourist industry in California mountain towns as vacationers cancel trips and national parks close, according to The Guardian.

For weeks, thick smoke filled the skies above Lake Tahoe, emptying the normally bustling towns that surround its alpine blue waters during the waning summer weekends. Eateries were closed, campgrounds cleared, and boats stayed anchored or moored along the shore.

The Caldor fire forced both residents and visitors to flee, raising questions about the future of wilderness playgrounds in the American west in an era when wildfires are getting worse. Mountain towns and gateway communities depend on vacationers and adventurers who will drop dollars on outdoor experiences and sweeping views. But the changing climate could put those profits – and the local economies that depend on them – in peril.

“You begin to see people canceling trips, concerts being canceled, all activities outside being canceled, forests being closed, parks being closed,” said Carl Ribaudo, a South Lake Tahoe resident who also advises the local tourism industry, which pulls in roughly $3 billion a year. Ribaudo fears that increasingly ferocious wildfires aren’t just threatening a single tourist season but the future of Lake Tahoe as a holiday destination.

Dyana Kelley, president of the CampCalNow RV Park and Campground Alliance, the professional trade association for owners and operators of campgrounds, said that even areas of California where there are no fires are seeing cancellations. The Golden State still has an array of outdoor options far from the smoke and flames. The national parks, which operate under different jurisdictions from the national forests are still welcoming visitors.

“There’s a perception when there’s a fire, that all of California is on fire,” Kelley said. “We are seeing people deciding to cancel reservations just because they are unsure about an area.”

When people cancel reservations in privately owned campgrounds due to smoke or out of fear, Kelley said the owners typically eat the cost. Insurance claims can’t be made on losses not directly caused by the fires. Other businesses, like restaurants in gateway communities or outdoor touring companies, are also taking a hit, especially in areas close to the shuttered national forests.

“You can’t even go for a hike,” she said. “That is a huge, huge hit to those areas that are still operating or functioning.” The fires burning now also have the potential to affect areas long into the future, as infrastructure, trails, and beautiful landscapes that attract visitors in the still-growing burn scars will need time to recover. “The attraction is to sit amongst the trees and the wildlife,” Kelley said. “Are people going to go if the campground gets rebuilt but everything around it is burned? As a lifetime camper myself, I don’t know.”

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