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Residents return to Brian Head, but will the tourists?

Resort town spared destruction, but businesses worry about future

BRIAN HEAD, Iron County — Now that the town is officially open again, residents and business owners are hoping the tourists and outdoor enthusiasts will come back.

The evacuation order for Brian Head and Dry Lakes was lifted Friday, 13 days after residents were forced from their homes by the raging Brian Head Fire that raced though nearly 90 square miles of mountain forest east of Cedar City.

People coming back to check on their cabins saw that the town looks just like it did the day before the wildfire. But for business owners, it's much different.

Robby Hartlmaier runs Georg's Ski and Bike Shop, 612 S. state Route 143, and was at the business when the fire turned into panic.

"We were here up on the deck watching the fire hit," Hartlmaier said, "and we were just … beside ourselves."

For an area that relies on tourism, being closed for two weeks hurt the bottom line.

"As of right now, we had to let a few people go from our shop that are more involved in the mountain biking thing, so that's been though," Hartlmaier said.

Mountain biking is an important part of Brian Head's economy, he said, but it's going to take time to get back to normal.

"My brother and I have been discussing how to handle our bike shuttle business and bike rental business," said Georg Hartlmaier. "The two trails we needed most were Bunker Creek and Dark Hollow, and those are pretty much gone. It'll be a few weeks before we can go in and see if it's still feasible to ride those. See what options we have left."

"There is still some great biking in Brian Head, just not the outlying stuff," added Robby Hartlmaier.

That's why opening just before the Fourth of July weekend is crucial for the small tourist town.

"Tourism, of course, is the lifeblood of our economy here. In the summer, Fourth of July is enormous for us," said Bret Howser, Brian Head town manager. "Some of the businesses make 80 percent of their summer revenue just on the Fourth of July weekend, so it's been a little scary for us the last couple of weeks.

"We're not a huge resort town. It's not like these businesses are turning crazy profits or anything. These are mostly owner-operated businesses and then they're out of business and doors are closed for two weeks, that's two weeks that they don't have a paycheck. That's two weeks that they're got to buy groceries still."

While they may lose some revenue, local business owners also know they are fortunate that they can reopen their shops. And it's all thanks to firefighters.

"They're amazing. (It) gives me chills to think of what those guys have been through to save Brian Head," Hartlmaier said.

"It was quite a sight to behold, and emotions were kind of swirling in that moment," Howser said. "We saw the flames coming up over the ridge, and I thought, ‘Holy cow! The town’s gone,' but then firefighters got in there.

"Initially, it was that air attack coming in, tankers dropping fire retardant. Quite frankly, they just saved our town," he said.

Nearly 60,000 acres have burned over the past two weeks, according to the Great Basin Incident Management Team.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources posted a statement Friday on Facebook recognizing that some of the wildlife in the area have been displaced, stressed or killed in the fire.

"However, interestingly all of the GPS-collared big game animals that we monitor in the vicinity of the Brian Head Fire have survived to this point," the statement read. "GPS collar data helps us monitor how big game animals move in response to the fire. It's amazing just how resilient our wildlife populations are."

The human-caused fire was 60 percent contained Friday, with 1,800 firefighters still battling the blaze. Firefighters have made progress along the south side of the fire, and they're patrolling the outskirts of the fire area and communities to respond to any concerns from residents, the news release stated.

The following areas remain under evacuation order: Upper Bear Valley, Horse Valley, Beaver Dam, Clear Creek, Castle Valley, Blue Springs, Rainbow Meadows, and Second Left Hand Canyon.

Parowan Canyon remains closed due to rehabilitation work. Residents and visitors should travel via state Route 14 and Cedar Breaks National Monument.

Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc and Sean Moody