- The Washington Times - Monday, June 24, 2002

DENVER When Colorado Gov. Bill Owens declared recently that "all of Colorado is on fire," he grabbed the nation's attention and made the state's wildfire disaster a top federal priority.
He also may have driven a stake in the heart of Colorado's summer tourism industry.
That may sound like a minor quibble in a state wracked by wildfire devastation, but it's a big deal to the hotel and restaurant owners, ranchers, rafting guides and outfitters who depend on summer vacationers for their livelihood.
In a state where tourism ranks as the second-largest industry, Mr. Owens has come under sharp criticism for what tourism officials complain was an exaggerated description of the fire's toll. His remarks, delivered June 9 as fires blazed out of control statewide, ran on television news shows and in newspapers throughout the world.
"That was a bummer," said Jill Strunk, spokeswoman for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. "You have the governor of the state saying, 'All of Colorado is burning' and how it looks like a 'nuclear winter' around here; then you see these pictures, and you can't help but think he's right."
The governor has stood by his remarks, explaining that they were meant to show solidarity with communities threatened by the fires. His comments came at a town gathering in Glenwood Springs, which was directly threatened by the Coal Seam fire.
"He meant that the fire affected all of Colorado and that they had our prayers and support," said his spokesman, Dan Hopkins. "It was a very spontaneous, unscripted moment."
As for the governor's comment that the haze covering Denver looked like the fallout from a "nuclear winter," Mr. Hopkins said that even lifelong residents would agree that the city looked that day like never before.
"To anyone who saw it, it was stunning," Mr. Hopkins said.
Outside Colorado, however, the governor's comments were interpreted literally, critics say. The state has been flooded with calls from worried family members and potential travelers under the impression that Denver had transformed into an inferno.
"We've had people call as far as Germany and Japan saying they've heard Denver might be evacuated and they're not sure they should still come," Miss Strunk said.
The Rocky Mountain News criticized Mr. Owens in an editorial for his "melodramatic language" but quipped that it could have been worse. "[L]ook on the bright side: At least the governor didn't invite tourists across the country to 'come visit Denver and experience the flavor of old Pompeii.'"
All the fires combined have burned no more than 200,000 acres, or less than one percent of the state's forested areas. The so-called Hayman fire, the largest of the fires running rampant this month, has come no closer than within 35 miles of Denver.
Despite the worried calls, Denver has suffered few cancellations, but the rural and mountain towns haven't been so lucky. Many vacation ranches report a dramatic drop in bookings since the fires broke out.
Denver Mayor Wellington Webb tried to head off any drop in convention business last week by taking out ads in trade magazines explaining that the fires are miles away.
Democrats, however, wasted little time in criticizing Mr. Owens, a first-term Republican facing re-election in November, for charring the state's image.
His Democratic opponent, businessman Rollie Heath, accused Mr. Owens of "doubling the impact" of the televised fire footage.
"The governor had an opportunity to put the fires in context, to say, 'We've got some real problems, but it's no more than 2 percent of the state,'" Mr. Heath said. "He could have done what Mayor [RudolphW.] Giuliani did in New York, telling people that the best way to help us is to come and spend your money."
Instead, Mr. Heath said, "People literally think our rivers are on fire and our golf courses can't be used."
The governor's spokesman accused Mr. Heath of using the wildfires for his political advantage. "It's a predictable political comment from an opponent who was campaigning near the fires two days later," Mr. Hopkins said.
Fortunately for the governor, he's the prohibitive favorite in a race that's still five months away. Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli predicted that his emotional outburst would be all but forgotten by November even among those in the tourism business.
"If anything, the fire is an advantage to him [Mr. Owens] it takes away all political news and puts him on the forefront of the state's biggest story," Mr. Ciruli said. "Besides, the tourism people are probably going to vote for him anyway. They're all Republicans."


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