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Tourists worried about fire cancel Glacier National Park trips; officials point to other areas

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HELENA, Montana — Hotels and campgrounds in Glacier National Park are flooded with calls from worried tourists canceling their reservations or asking whether the Montana landmark will stay open as a wildfire sweeps through a popular part of the park.

Hotel owners are trying to talk callers out of changing their plans, while Glacier officials emphasized that only a small part of the 1,718-square-mile park is closed as the flames chew though parched conifer-topped ridges on its eastern side.

The blaze has shut down nearly half of the heavily trafficked Going-to-the-Sun Road, and officials were helping reroute tourists planning to visit attractions along the roadway to other scenic areas, park spokeswoman Denise Germann said.

"I think what we're offering visitors is a completely different experience throughout the park," Germann told The Associated Press on Friday. "So many people rely on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, but you and I know there is so much more to Glacier."

Kelsey Utterback, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student, had planned to stay at the Rising Sun Campground when her family visits from Chicago in two weeks. The site has been evacuated, but they're still planning to go to Glacier, she said. They're looking at campgrounds on the park's western side, far from the blaze.

"Right now, we're just worried about when the fire will end," she said. "We don't really want to go when it's still out there, but it's kind of easier for us to change our plans considering we didn't make any reservations."

The fire was unchecked and estimated at 6 square miles Friday, though fire spokeswoman Jennifer Costich said new information would soon provide a more accurate size. Some 300 firefighters dug fire lines, cleared debris and tried to stop the blaze from spreading northeast toward populated areas.

Blazes also are chewing through other drought-stricken areas of the West, threatening homes and forcing evacuations in California and Washington state.

Glacier National Park was having a banner year before the first plume of smoke started rising Tuesday. It is the 10th-most-visited park in the National Park Service system, despite its remote location. Top destinations such as the Great Smoky Mountains and California's Yosemite National Park enjoy proximity to denser populations.

Visitor numbers from the first part of 2015 showed Glacier was on track to beat last year's record of 2.3 million tourists. But the main tourist season, measured from the June 19 opening of the scenic Going-to-the-Sun Road until its planned closure Sept. 20, is a brief 13 weeks.

PHOTO: In this photo provided by Erin Conwell, taken Tuesday, July 21, 2015, fire and smoke from the the Reynolds Creek wildfire rises above the landscape at St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Mont. The fire burning in the drought-parched northwestern Montana park doubled in size Wednesday, leading  officials to evacuate homes along St. Mary Lake and visitors to flee hotels and campgrounds in the nearby community at Glacier’s eastern entrance. (Erin Conwell via AP)
In this photo provided by Erin Conwell, taken Tuesday, July 21, 2015, fire and smoke from the the Reynolds Creek wildfire rises above the landscape at St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Mont. The fire burning in the drought-parched northwestern Montana park doubled in size Wednesday, leading officials to evacuate homes along St. Mary Lake and visitors to flee hotels and campgrounds in the nearby community at Glacier’s eastern entrance. (Erin Conwell via AP)

Any disruption in that window can hurt the tourism-driven businesses around the park that took in $193 million from visitors last year.

At the center of it all is the 50-mile Going-to-the-Sun Road, which cuts through the park's stunning alpine peaks. Twenty-one miles of the road is closed, including at Logan Pass on the Continental Divide, where some of the park's most-hiked trails begin.

Germann said the closures are an opportunity to visit other sites, such as Many Glacier and Two Medicine — scenic areas with campgrounds, lodges and trailheads — or the entire western side.

Many of the cancellations are at hotels and campgrounds in the St. Mary community, where the Going-to-the-Sun Road ends at the park's eastern boundary. The edge of the fire is a few miles up the road, where it is threatening the Rising Sun Motor Inn and nearby campgrounds.

St. Mary, consisting mostly of lodging, restaurants and other tourism businesses, has not been evacuated, and the people there are trying to persuade visitors to stay — with limited success.

Lester Johnson IV, co-owner of Johnson's Campground and RV Park, said his business is about half-full after it had been fully booked through September.

"There have been cancellations left and right," Johnson said. "We are 70 percent down."

Those who remain are die-hards who stay at the campground every year or gawkers who traveled there to watch the fire's progress from a nearby hillside. Meanwhile, Johnson is trying to persuade tourists to check with the campground a week before canceling their reservations.

Ron Cadrette, general manager of Glacier Park Inc., which operates hotels in and around Glacier, said cancellations have come at the company's St. Mary Lodge and Resort, an upscale 115-room hotel. Many of those rooms have been rebooked by guests displaced from other hotels and by firefighters who need a place to stay, he said.

But the fire will undoubtedly have a negative effect on business — it's just a question of how bad it will get, Cadrette said.

"It's a natural disaster. It will have negative economic impacts," he said. "How bad those impacts will be depends on the length of time the Going-to-the-Sun Road is closed."

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Video:
PHOTO: A fast-spreading wildfire has charred more than 10 square miles as it raged on for a second day near Northern California wine country. It was only 5 percent contained Thursday afternoon. The cause was under investigation. (July 23)
A fast-spreading wildfire has charred more than 10 square miles as it raged on for a second day near Northern California wine country. It was only 5 percent contained Thursday afternoon. The cause was under investigation. (July 23) PHOTO: A fast-moving wildfire in Glacier National Park torched a car and a historic cabin and forced tourists to abandon their vehicles on the Montana park's most popular roadway while officials evacuated hotels, campgrounds and homes. (July 23)
A fast-moving wildfire in Glacier National Park torched a car and a historic cabin and forced tourists to abandon their vehicles on the Montana park's most popular roadway while officials evacuated hotels, campgrounds and homes. (July 23) PHOTO: A fast-moving California wildfire in Napa and Solano counties northeast of San Francisco has grown during the past 24 hours, threatening many structures and triggering evacuations. (July 23)
A fast-moving California wildfire in Napa and Solano counties northeast of San Francisco has grown during the past 24 hours, threatening many structures and triggering evacuations. (July 23)
Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: A firefighter watches a helicopter battle the Wragg fire near Winters, Calif., on Thursday, July 23, 2015. According to Cal Fire, the blaze scorched more than 6,000 acres and is threatening 200 structures. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)
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