Elias Funez The Modesto Bee Firetrucks fill a parking lot of the Black Oak Casino near Tuolumne City. Crews battling the Rim fire have booked all 148 rooms at the Black Oak's hotel.

Rim fire ruins tourism trade in Tuolumne County

Published: Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 16A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Sep. 3, 2013 - 2:29 pm

TUOLUMNE COUNTY – Bay Area resident Barbara Morgan and her family have been coming to Pinecrest Lake in late August for a before-school camping trip for decades. And in all their years at the lake, they have never seen it as empty as this year.

There is no waiting at the concession stand, plenty of elbow room at the beach and no trouble finding parking. The only blemish is the hazy smoke that has enveloped the lake, obscuring views of nearby mountains.

"I was surprised that a little smoke could do this," Morgan said.

The poor air quality caused by the Rim fire, which started Aug. 17 near Groveland in the Stanislaus National Forest, is drying up the steady steam of vacationers, day-trippers and visitors to tourism-dependent Tuolumne County.

Pinecrest General Store owner Dan Vaughn said about three-quarters of the people who had reserved campsites and lodging at the lake have canceled their reservations since the Rim fire started.

Some of it is based on panic as out-of-towners erroneously think the entire county is burning, and some of it is because of the dirty air.

Vaughn said business at his store is down 95 percent since the fire. On most late-summer Saturdays, he has six employees working with him at the store. But on this Saturday, his only help was one cashier.

"This had been a pretty good summer," Vaughn said. "There were signs the economy was picking up. More people had jobs."

On most summer Saturdays, about 2,000 to 3,000 people will pass through the Black Oak Casino near Tuolumne City. They will gamble on the casino floor, eat in the cafe or fine-dining restaurant, bowl or play arcade games on the family entertainment floor.

But casino general manager Ron Patel expected about 30 customers Saturday. That's because while the casino is open, the two main roads to the casino have been closed to everyone except locals since Friday afternoon because of the fire.

Patel said most of casino's customers are from the northern San Joaquin Valley and East Bay.

He said the casino typically has 400 to 500 employees working Saturdays in August. That number dwindled to 110 Saturday, with only the casino floor and cafe open.

"We're operating at a loss," he said.

Groveland businesses have suffered since the fire forced the closure of Highway 120 east of town. The highway is one of the entrances to Yosemite National Park. Some businesses have closed while others stayed open but have seen few customers.

"Business has been extremely slow," said Geri Wright, a waitress at the Iron Door Saloon and Grill. "We are trying to be open in case a firefighter or someone else needs a cold drink or something else. Downtown is usually packed with cars, but it's very quiet in town."

One saving grace has been the firefighters. More than 2,600 firefighters and other personnel from throughout the state and across the nation are fighting the wildfire. They also are spending money.

Patel said firefighters are booked in all 148 rooms at Black Oak's hotel and have eaten 100 to 200 meals at the casino's 24-hour cafe in the past day.

About a 100 firefighters a day are coming into the Mar-Val Food Store in Groveland, store clerk Erin Sackett said. They are buying sunflower seeds, soda, ice cream, ice and other staples.

"Business is slow, but of course we have the firefighters," she said.

Modesto Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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