July 20, 2024
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Wildfires hit tourism industry still reeling from pandemic


This is supposed to the time of year for clear skies in Morro Bay. The fog, when it comes in at all, usually lifts by noon, says Mary Robinson the owner of Paddlesports Morro Bay.

Firefighters set a controlled burn on Sept. 11 to combat the Dolan Fire near Big Sur, north of San Luis Obispo County. The fire closed Pacific Coast Highway and sent a cloud of smoke over much of the coast, forcing some businesses in San Luis Obispo to close. (Photo courtesy of CalFire)

But lately the San Luis Obispo County coast has been blanketed by a mix of fog, smoke and ash. Robinson’s business has been operating on limited hours, and on Sept. 14 she closed it entirely. That day, she had to sweep the ash off of her car in the morning, and the air burned her eyes and nose.

The San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department recommended that everyone stay indoors due to the poor air quality, after days of advising people who are sensitive to particle pollution to stay inside.

“Any time the air is unhealthy, it doesn’t make sense to open,” Robinson said.

All spring and summer, as the coronavirus pandemic shut down most indoor attractions and gathering places, the watchword for tourism was the great outdoors. But now, with wildfires raging all over the West Coast—though not in the Tri-Counties this time—people are avoiding the outdoor air, too, and tourist-dependent businesses are taking another hit.

The effect is most obvious in San Luis Obispo County, which has often been covered with smoke and ash from the Dolan Fire, a major wildfire that has been burning for a month in the Big Sur region. Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have also been seeing unhealthy air quality levels from wildfires across the state.

Morro Bay Paddlesports was able to reopen after one day. Wind moved a lot of the ash out of the area, which improved the general air quality enough to let people go back out on the water. But as the wind died down, Robinson could tell the air quality was getting worse. The Morro Bay Paddlesports website now warns about the air quality, advises people to call ahead to find out if the business is open and asks people to pray for rain.

The Dolan Fire is also interrupting how people get into San Luis Obispo county. In Monterey County, 13 miles of Highway 1 have been blocked off, eliminating one of the main routes between the San Francisco Bay Area and San Luis Obispo County destinations like Cambria and San Simeon.

Regional marketing agency Visit SLO CAL is letting travelers know that if they’re coming down from the north, they’ll need to find another way into the county. It’s the second time that the agency has had to get that message out in the past three years; a mudslide in May 2017 closed a stretch of Highway 1 in Big Sur for more than a year. Chuck Davison, the president and CEO of Visit SLO CAL, said the region has been relatively lucky in regard to the wildfires.

While the Dolan Fire is close to San Luis Obispo County’s northern communities, there hasn’t been a large-scale fire in the county this season. The county is also not seeing as much spillover impact as it did during the Thomas Fire in December 2017 and the subsequent mudflow in January 2018, which took out roads in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

“The smoke’s definitely been impacting the community over the past week or so, but we’ve fared pretty well for the most part,” Davison said.

Not every community in the county has been hit the same way. Davison said San Luis Obispo County has 26 or so microclimates, which means the air quality can depend on where someone is and how much wind is currently going through the area. The County Air Pollution Control District reported that Atascadero, which is inland, saw moderate levels of fine particles in the air on Sept. 14, while Morro Bay saw more than 2.5 times as many fine particulates in the air.

–Contact Amber Hair at ahair@pacbiztimes.com