Smoke rolling through the Okanagan Valley from wildfires in Washington is expected to clear up on the weekend, but it is already impacting tourism numbers.
According to Diana Stirling, chair for Tourism Penticton and owner of LocoLanding Adventure park, some of the larger accommodations in Penticton reported that in the last 48 hours there has been 114 room nights cancelled for stays spanning the next 10 days.
Restaurants, retail stores, wineries, hotels and attractions have all felt the brunt of the smoke billowing in from the wildfires in Washington State.
“Across the board what we’re seeing is the smoke is affecting tourism without a doubt,” Stirling said. “The feedback from the accommodators is very clear that people are cancelling their reservations, but more importantly, they are leaving early.”
The Penticton Lakeside Resort was able to avoid the quick downturn, according to general manager David Prystay. He said that the smoke hasn’t hit the hotel’s numbers very hard.
“I think some people are a little annoyed with it, but I think those that don’t want to sit outside go inside. Our numbers are still up,” Prystay said. “We haven’t had many cancellations, we’ve actually had more people stay because they couldn’t get flights out of town, so it works both ways.”
Visibility increased Tuesday for the first time since the smoke rolled into Penticton over the weekend. A northern wind helped push the smoke back south of the border.
The smoke won’t go away just yet though. Environment Canada Meteorologist Lisa Coldwells said the weather patterns are going to remain stagnant for the next few days, leaving the smoke sitting in the valley. A southeast wind forecasted for Wednesday may actually bring more smoke back into the valley.
“We need to get a wholesale change in the weather pattern to get rid of all this smoke and that is on the horizon,” Coldwells said.
Relief from the smoky skies isn’t projected until Saturday at the earliest with some wind and some rain forecasted.
The South Okanagan will continue to face air quality indexes greater than 10, which means that the air quality effects everyone, not just those with breathing or heart conditions.
“If you need to go outside maybe curb your strenuous activities, just take into account there is a lot of smoke in the air. You may get a cough or a sore throat,” Coldwells said. “If you go inside to places that are air conditioned there’s generally filters on the air conditioning so that will help alleviate air quality problems.”
“If you’re a person with a pre-existing health problem you have to take definite steps to mitigate all the smoke in the air,” she said.
With the Valley First Challenge Penticton triathlon events to start Friday and the race on Sunday, co-owner Kevin Cutjar is optimistic the forecast will change just in time.
“We think that the smoke is going to clear before the weekend and the temperature is going to drop, so we’re quite relieved if the forecast is anything to go by,” Cutjar said.
Cutjar noted that smoky skies didn’t deter the more than 600 athletes who ran in the 33rd annual Pushor Mitchell Kelowna Apple Triathlon last weekend.
“There doesn’t seem to have been any issues with the athletes’ breathing, or respiratory issues. Some people chose to play it safe and not race, but it doesn’t seem to be much of an issue for them,” Cutjar said.
The smoke may add to the worries of already nervous athletes, but Cutjar feels it will be a non-issue by the time of the triathlon.
“Everybody is sort of looking at the forecast and it is clearing as we speak,” Cutjar said. “Sometimes athletes get a bit concerned or nervous coming up to any big event. Obviously the smoke adds to those nerves, but as the smoke clears up towards the end of the week everyone will be feeling good and ready to go.”
Stirling said many businesses are staying optimistic, and that all residents have a direct or indirect relation to tourism in Penticton.
“Everybody in Penticton has a role to play in promoting the fact that once this smoke does clear that Penticton is open for summer and open for business,” Stirling said. “We, from a social media perspective, should be all helping to show how beautiful Penticton is, and the fact that we still possibly might have 12 or 13 days of summer left here.”