Wildfires that have forced more than 60 provincial parks in central B.C. to close are stoking fears among tourism operators that the financial damage will spread to the province’s entire industry early in the critical summer season.
The fires have forced officials to close roads, including a part of the TransCanada Highway near Cache Creek, as well as the airport in Williams Lake, a community placed on alert on Monday for a possible evacuation order.
The offices of the Caribou Chilcotin Coast Tourism Association in Williams Lake have also been closed and staff are working remotely, chairman Andre Kuerbis said.
He confirmed Tuesday that one of the region’s top tourist stops, historic Lee’s Corner store and cabins, was burned to the ground by a wildfire last Friday.
But he added much of the area known for camping, hiking, fishing and boating remains unaffected by fire or smoke and urged tourists to call ahead to confirm reservations and transportation.
“We have had impacted businesses, of course. But it’s not the whole region or the whole province that is on fire,” Kuerbis said.
“We don’t see at this point … a lot of cancellations. Of course, there are a lot of questions coming from visitors who are on their way or already here in the province.”
At Sheridan Lake Resort, 140 kilometres southeast of Williams Lake, owner Dave Carswell said some of the guests in his 90-stall RV campground reported heavy smoke was making it difficult to breathe.
“We’ve had probably 30 or 40 units leave out of our RV site and usually this time of year we’re packed,” he said.
“The smoke is quite thick … there’s an island across the lake from us and we can’t even see it.”
He added reservations on all 18 of the resort’s cabins have been cancelled, but a half dozen helicopter pilots and engineers fighting fires in the area have been staying there since nearby 100 Mile House was evacuated.
Adventure tour provider Duncan Stewart said he has been forced to cancel about 30 per cent of his backcountry camping and canoeing trips because of closures to parks such as Wells Gray Provincial Park — he criticized the province as overly cautious in some instances.
Walt Judas, CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of B.C., said it’s difficult to say at this point how much damage the wildfires will inflict on the industry.
“Obviously, the longer it goes, the bigger the impact,” he said.
He said the tourism industry was on a “very healthy pace” so far this year after posting record revenue of $15.7 billion last year.
Judas estimated about 130,000 people work in what is considered one of B.C.’s largest economic sectors.