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The July Mountain wildfire burns along the Coquihalla Highway south of Merritt, B.C., on Aug. 11, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Things were looking up in the early days of the summer tourist season in the small B.C. Interior town of Revelstoke last year. COVID-19 restrictions were winding down, and demand for accommodations from restless travellers out of Vancouver and Calgary was strong.

The numbers stayed strong even when the thick, acrid smoke from nearby wildfires first swept into town around mid-July, covering the town in a layer of ash.

But by early August, word had spread and tourists started looking elsewhere, like Vancouver Island, in search of fresh air and sunshine.

“We saw a pretty serious drop-off,” said Robyn Goldsmith, a spokesperson for Tourism Revelstoke.

“That had a pretty profound impact on businesses that were just starting to see an uptick after COVID.”

Tourism businesses all across the Interior are bracing themselves again for the impact of wildfires on their operations as they try to rebound from two years of pandemic restrictions. Data from Tourism Revelstoke showed local tax revenues from hotel stays dropped 23 per cent last August from the previous month after visitors realized the drastic nature of the smoke and fires in the area (the two months have historically performed at similar levels).

Ms. Goldsmith pointed out that the hotel industry was kept afloat by the fire crews, who obviously needed accommodations; other tourism businesses fared far worse.

She added that domestic tourists are becoming wary of the Interior during the peak summer months, and she expects travel patterns to change – to earlier or later parts of the year. The impact on international tourism remains to be seen, she said.

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The BC Wildfire Service says the 2022 fire season is off to an average start, and a heavy snowpack in many parts of the Interior is a positive sign. However, spokesperson Taylor Colman also warned that regions such as the Okanagan continue to experience deep drought conditions in the soil; last year’s intense blazes had a lasting impact, leaving the area susceptible to burns.

A helicopter carrying a water bucket flies past a pyrocumulus cloud, also known as a fire cloud, produced by the Lytton Creek wildfire burning in the mountains above Lytton, B.C., on Aug. 15, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Great Canadian Tours, a Revelstoke company that runs dirt bike, off-road and water sports tours, said it’s expecting to scale down its summer operations after last year’s dismal stretch.

It was forced to cancel all off-road activity for weeks last summer due to a ban ordered by fire authorities and, because of thick smoke, continued to advise customers not to book even when the ban was lifted.

“We would have ash accumulating within an hour on vehicles or anything left outside, and visibility was less than 200 metres for several weeks, so it wasn’t safe to actually go anywhere,” said assistant manager Heather Scott, who added that there was a period when the town felt deserted.

“Even just driving around in town you couldn’t see the end of the street you were driving down, let alone see the mountains and sun.”

Revelstoke is a town best known for its winter sports, but it had been building a reputation as a summer destination as well. Now, Ms. Scott said, she finds it difficult to believe that business owners will want to invest in the summer season when forest fires are a variable.

Areas that aren’t experiencing the impacts of wildfires as intensely say the challenge is explaining that the fires and smoke aren’t a problem in every part of the Interior.

While the Flying U Ranch in 70 Mile House, B.C., had to shut down for two weeks last summer due to fires, its president and chief executive said the business wasn’t plagued by heavy smoke for most of the season because of its location on a plateau.

John Lovelace said often people will look at the provincial fire map and assume that the marked fires are near his ranch, when in reality they’re hundreds of kilometres away, with the smoke blowing in the other direction.

“We’ll get calls saying, ‘I hear there’s a big fire up there,’ when we don’t have a big fire here, we have a big fire in Kelowna or north of us,” he said.

As people in western Canada get used to the presence of smoke, Mr. Lovelace believes tourists will learn to live with the situation and work around it. He said the ranch’s business – accommodations, horseback riding and other activities – continued to grow last year, and he doesn’t expect that to change.

Meanwhile, the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association said it’s optimistic about the coming season after demand remained strong throughout the summer last year.

Ellen Walker-Matthews, chief executive of the association, said the desire to travel as COVID-19 restrictions eased was stronger than any concerns about fires.

“People at some point said they don’t care, they’re just happy that they can travel and are travelling,” she said.

The most significant impact of last summer’s fires was that people weren’t allowed to drive through certain areas under alert, she said, which made it difficult for them to get to the Okanagan Valley. Ms. Walker-Matthews said driving through areas under alert isn’t usually a problem, and the association hopes the measure won’t be enforced this summer.

In Revelstoke, Ms. Goldsmith said businesses are doing their best to be optimistic too. The region has a good snowpack, which is a positive early indicator.

“There’s some hope that the snowpack will have some impact, but I think people have a little bit of PTSD after last year, because it was pretty staggering.”

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