Grizzly Creek fire, COVID-19 a brutal one-two punch for Glenwood Springs

GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Homemade plastic barriers have been hung between booths inside the Daily Bread cafe, part of the Bartnik family’s solution to preventing COVID-19’s spread in their small restaurant.

Joanna and Mark Bartnik felt like they had figured out the coronavirus pandemic this summer, and the cafe they’ve owned for 18 years was making a comeback.

Then on Aug. 10 they saw smoke billowing over the Grizzly Creek ridge just outside of town. Within a week, business crashed for the second time this year.

“Right now, it’s really bad. Business is worse than when we reopened after COVID,” Joanna Bartnik said. “This was supposed to be our busy time where we would recover some of our COVID losses.”

The pandemic and fire are a brutal one-two punch that almost have leveled Glenwood Springs’ economy. And they come after a lengthy Grand Avenue Bridge project tested everyone’s patience before wrapping up in November 2017.

“What’s next? An asteroid?” Bartnik asked.

In a typical year, August is one of the busiest months as families travel from Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs for one last trip before school starts. They come to soak in mineral springs, hike to Hanging Lake and explore caves at an adventure park.

But August 2020 is anything but typical.

The Grizzly Creek fire has burned more than 29,000 acres around Glenwood Canyon, forcing transportation officials to close Interstate 70 with no estimated time for reopening. The three-hour trip between Denver and Glenwood Springs expanded to nearly five hours, and pictures of smoke clouding the town further deter people from making the trip.

At the Daily Bread, the Bartniks served 30 people on Sunday, compared to 180 diners when things are normal, Joanna Bartnik said. She was considering closing until the worst of the fire is over.

“We just have to take a deep breath and get through it,” she said.

It’s too soon to tell just how deep the pandemic and fire will cut.

Debra Figueroa, Glenwood Springs’ city manager, estimated the town lost $2 million in taxable sales in the first week I-70 was closed. That’s based on the average amount of weekly losses experienced during the pandemic shutdown, she said.

On top of tax losses, the fire threatens the city’s water supply, and fire managers believe it has damaged the watershed that supplies the town’s drinking water, Figueroa said. Early assessments estimated the cost of those damages to be up to $20 million, she said.

Gates on the water flow at Grizzly Creek were closed to protect the No Name drainage, cutting the city’s water supply in half, she said. The town started drawing from the Roaring Fork River. But it’s not enough to meet the city’s daily needs and have enough left over to fight a fire in town. Residents and businesses are asked to reduce their usage.

“Casualty of the fire”

At the historic Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, operations director Kevin Flohr closed the new Shoshone Chutes whitewater river. The chutes draw from the city’s water supply rather than the hot springs that fill the giant swimming pool, he said. It’s also expensive to run the pumps and motors that make artificial rapids.

“It’s a casualty of the fire,” Flohr said. “It’s so expensive to run you can’t afford to run it without more people here.”

Flohr declined to share the resort’s daily attendance numbers, but even a first-time visitor could see the empty chairs around the pool. On Tuesday, only one of three ticket booths was open and a lone cashier chatted with a resort hostess in the empty room.

Already, the resort changed its setup to prevent COVID-19 infections among guests. The indoor restaurant closed. A new poolside layout keeps people separated. Stickers on the floor designate six-foot separation points between customers in line for tickets.

“If this was two weeks ago, you’d see people flowing through here,” Flohr said as he stood in the pool’s lobby. “Our plan was making us succeed.”

In the pool Tuesday a few dozen people, mostly locals, swam despite smoke rising from the surrounding mountains.

Alois Gettinger, 88, and Chris Janus, 72, soaked their aching bodies in the 90-degree mineral water. The two became buddies at the pool, and when Gettinger was forced to evacuate his home in No Name, Janus offered his friend a room at his house.

“I’ve had just about enough. I’d like to be able to come out and take a breath of fresh air,” Janus said. “The warm water soaking the hurting bones is more important than the lungs.”

“Never seen it this slow”

Down the road from the mineral pool, the gondola to the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park was idle. Rather than visitors touring caves and riding the Giant Canyon Swing that slings them over a cliff, firefighters have established a base camp.

White fire hoses primed with water stretch along the sidewalks, and temporary water tanks sit near carved wooden bears and covered wagons that normally serve as photo ops for families. Hot shot crews cut a swatch along the mountainside to serve as a fire break, and airplanes and helicopters have dropped hundreds of thousands of gallons of red fire retardant on the neighboring mountainsides.

When the fire erupted, owner Steve Beckley sent the park’s 250 employees home — again. Already the park had closed for the coronavirus pandemic for almost three months, but Beckley was optimistic after reopening in early June.

“We kind of had it figured out and we were pretty close to last year’s revenue,” he said.

Park attendance declined about 28% in July from the same month in 2019, but those who came spent more money, he said. Because of limited capacity, the park did not offer its usual discounts so people paid regular ticket prices. They spent more on food, beverage and souvenirs, he said.

Beckley also owns the Iron Mountain Hot Springs, where just one couple soaked Tuesday afternoon in the 16 geothermal pools and two families splashed in the swimming pool. Because of COVID-19, the resort limits usage, by limiting visitors to two hours inside and requiring reservations. A sign outside Tuesday showed availability for all 23 time slots.

But the fire and virus did not deter DeeAnn Ritchie from making the nearly five-hour drive from Denver to take her niece and nephew who were visiting from Seattle to see the area. She grew up going to Glenwood Springs for weekend getaways and wanted to share the experience with her family.

“To me, it’s supporting local business,” she said. “I’ve never seen it this slow. It’s heartbreaking with COVID and now the fire.”

Inside the Confetti Designs boutique, owner Sue Sharpe visited with friends as she waited for tourists to return. Her friend, Anne Durkin, strolled inside, announcing, “My corks are popped right now!” as the two women started talking about the fire and Sharpe’s news that another grandchild is on the way.

“We’re going to come back strong”

Glenwood Springs was doing well after the new Grand Avenue Bridge and adjacent pedestrian bridge rejuvenated the area, Sharpe said.

“Before the fire, that was just hopping,” she said. “It was so exciting to be downtown.”

People in Glenwood Springs are optimistic, though. They point to the canyon and say they will be as resilient as it is. The region has been scarred by fires before; almost everyone talks about the 1994 South Canyon fire that killed 14 firefighters who died after getting trapped on Storm King Mountain.

“It puts things in perspective,” Flohr said. “How important is everything when you see that?”

When word came that Hanging Lake survived after fire reached the area, locals felt relief.

“It’s critically important to our community,” Figueroa said. “There is such a strong connection. It was good for morale. It was a big deal for us.”

Glenwood Hot Springs Resort offers free admission to firefighters and even provides swim trunks. Restaurants and hotels give discounts to fire crews, and thank-you signs hang in windows throughout town.

At the adventure park, Beckley cooks batches of fudge for firefighters camping in the plaza. On Tuesday, he thanked two firefighters repeatedly as he took them on a free cave tour.

Beckley is prepared for his park to be closed for another couple of weeks. He hopes to reopen for Labor Day weekend — one last push before summer transitions to fall, when attendance drops. Workers are ready to return and reopen the park at a moment’s notice.

“Glenwood is a great place and we’re going to come back strong when this is done,” he said.

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