- Associated Press - Monday, December 12, 2016

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) - In just over eight months, a crush of people will descend on eastern Idaho - likely more than the region has ever hosted at once.

They will come here because it’s expected to be among the best places in the nation to view the “Great American Eclipse” on the morning of Aug. 21. It will be the first total solar eclipse seen from the mainland U.S. in nearly four decades.

Eclipse chasers will fly from countries around the world, packing hotel rooms and campsites they booked months, or even years, in advance. Thousands more will make the decision to see the once-in-a-lifetime event only a few weeks or days beforehand, driving south from Montana or north from Salt Lake City. Attendance estimates have ranged wildly, from 50,000 people to 500,000.

“Imagine the largest public gathering that ever occurred in your area, and multiply that by two? Or 10? It could be either,” said Michael Zeiler, an eclipse expert and cartographer from Santa Fe, New Mexico, who runs the website greatamericaneclipse.com.

Government planning will ramp up in the coming weeks. On Wednesday, the city of Idaho Falls hosts a meeting of officials from eight regional counties to begin mapping out the event. It will include discussion of forming a regional “Type 3” incident management team.

The team will include police, fire and public health officials who ensure everything from traffic, to emergency services and public information flows smoothly in the days around the eclipse, which falls on a Monday, city of Idaho Falls spokeswoman Kerry Hammon said.

“We’re inventing something unique,” Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper said of the planning process. “We have no way to really gauge how many visitors (we’ll get).”

The eclipse will pass over a 67-mile-wide path moving west to east across the country, covering a stretch of land between Shelley and Ashton. Casper said she has also been in touch with officials outside the path, including Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad, who also are expected to see an influx of visitors.

Hotel rooms in the Idaho Falls area long ago sold out, other than a few held open for regular non-eclipse business travelers, said Michelle Holt, CEO of the Greater Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce.

Hotels and other lodging options require four-night minimums around eclipse time, and will charge sometimes hundreds of dollars per night more than usual, said Tom Walsh, chairman of the Yellowstone Teton Territory, the tourism organization that covers six eastern Idaho counties.

Walsh, who runs the Hansen Guest Ranch in Swan Valley, said he’s been booked for the eclipse since before summer. His guests include groups from Luxembourg, Germany, Canada, France, Australia and California. He said many are coming for the eclipse, then looking to tour the national parks, or do any number of other outdoor activities as part of a larger vacation.

Plenty of visitors will be staying outdoors, in a campground, open Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management land - and probably sometimes on private property, Walsh said.

“People are probably going to be putting a tent out in a pasture somewhere,” Walsh said. “I’m serious. That’s going to happen.”

Casper said the city is considering opening Sandy Downs or other public spaces around the city to camping. City officials also are starting to think about logistics such as renting dozens of portable toilets in advance, and setting up areas for RVs to dump their waste, she said.

Zeiler, the eclipse expert, created an interactive map that shows where major U.S. population centers are most likely to go to watch the eclipse, based on driving distance. Eastern Idaho could be among the busiest, considering its proximity to Interstate 15.

To the south, eclipse goers will come here from Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix and parts of southern California, due to the faster drive time. To the north, the Idaho Falls area is also the logical place to see the eclipse if you live anywhere in western Montana - or even the Canadian cities of Calgary and Edmonton.

“The interstate acts as a funnel for many millions of people, many of whom won’t make a decision (on where to see the eclipse) until a week before, or even a day before, their trek,” Zeiler said.

A higher probability of clear weather is another factor that may convince people to see the eclipse in eastern Idaho over other locales, Zeiler said. For experienced eclipse watchers like himself, the region between Nebraska and Oregon is the “sweet spot” because the weather is more likely to cooperate, he said. Websites such as eclipsophile.com are devoted to helping predict clear weather on Aug. 21.

It will have been 99 years since the last total solar eclipse traced the length of the U.S. The last time an eclipse traced an “extended track” over such a populated area as the 2017 version was a European eclipse in 1999, Zeiler said.

Zeiler watched it from Austria - one of eight eclipses he’s seen around the world - and recalls large crowds. But he said even that eclipse attendance is hard to compare to the coming American version: We didn’t have social media, or a mature internet at the time.

“Social media is going to go nuts in the days and months leading up the eclipse,” he said.

Where does Zeiler plan to take in the eclipse next summer? Probably eastern Idaho. But he’ll be watching the weather closely, he said, and will prepare to drive hundreds of miles in either direction, at the last minute, to ensure he doesn’t miss it.

“It’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen in your life,” Zeiler said he tells eclipse newbies. “You will just be stunned at the spectacle, and it will affect you at a very primal level. It’s a deeply emotional event.”

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