The first report of many to come regarding impacts of the wildfires that scorched Oregon in 2017 was released Thursday by the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, a timber industry organization that studies issues related to forests and the companies that work in them.
The OFRI’s report, while broad, outlines the issues the state faced and will continue to face in light of the 665,000 acres of forest burned last summer.
“There are huge impacts to air quality and health, school athletics, travel and tourism, employment and the economy, transportation and iconic Oregon economic sectors such as the state’s wine and timber industries,” said Executive Director Paul Barnum. “No single state agency is charged with documenting these costs, so the OFRI set out to gather what information is available, from media reports, individual interviews and research.”
The fires alone were one thing.
But thick smoke blanketed the state for a record 160 days, canceling cultural, social and athletic events. Numerous days in Curry County were considered unhealthy for sensitive groups. By comparison, there were no days that reached that level in 2016.
Traffic, from visitors to the state to commercial trucking, was rerouted and delayed. Many people couldn’t get to work — and many businesses curtailed their hours or shut completely for lack of employees and patrons.
After the fires, many communities face landslides, flooding and diminished water quality, including Brookings and Harbor, which this week received the first significant storm of the season. Water coming down the Chetco River is chocolate in color, levels peaked at 17,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) Thursday, and city and port officials are geared up to test for contamination.
Friday, river flow had backed down to 7,950 cfs, but another storm is forecast through the weekend.
“Questions loom: Is this the new normal?” Barnum said. “Since 1970, the length of the average fire season has grown by 78 days, from five months to more than seven months. Fire suppression costs for 2017 are $454 million, and during the peak fire season in early September, 8,000 firefighters were working in Oregon.”
The thick, orange smoke that permeated Brookings during the Chetco Bar Fire forced hundreds of evacuate, even when the wildfire wasn’t near their home. Numerous days here had air quality deemed unhealthy for sensitive groups; statewide, that resulted in an 86 percent increase to emergency rooms and urgent care centers, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
And those weren’t older folks, either: Most of those patients were between the ages of 18 and 44.
High schools, including Brookings-Harbor High School, cancelled more than 300 games statewide after the State School Activities Association issued air-quality advisories.
Cycle Oregon canceled its event, losing an estimated $1.7 million to the event and communities along its route. Few people showed up for the Wild Rivers Music Festival in Azalea Park, seriously affecting the bottom line of a concert trying to get established as an annual event.
Tourism in Curry County — detailed studies are underway — was dealt a double-whammy with the simultaneous closure of the salmon season.
Recreation sites damaged in the fires aren’t expected to start opening until at least this spring, according to the report.
Christine Drazan, executive director of the Cultural Advocacy Commission, said those losses add up. Even those people who visit Oregon for its natural wonders end up taking advantage of other offerings.
“After rafting a river or biking a trail, they also visit a museum and go see a show,” Drazan said. “They’re very tied together.”
Travel Oregon is gathering information for an economic analysis of the impact of the wildfires on the travel and tourism industry, to be published later in 2018, and to include losses to restaurants, hotels, tour services and events, Barnum said.
Other impacts addressed in the report included those to employment, the wine industry and loggers, which, in some areas couldn’t access the forest because of the fires and are now scrambling to harvest salvage trees before they rot.
“We value our natural resources and want to conserve them,” Drazan said. “We also want to protect our cultural life – which strengthens community and quality of life – from irreparable damage due to fire-related losses and unsafe air quality during fire seasons, which may continue to grow in frequency, intensity and duration.
“The range of impacts from this are economic,” she added. “They’re educational. And they are cultural.”
Chemicals emitted, tons per acre burned
Carbon Dioxide, 27,222 tons per acre;
Carbon Monoxide, 1,685;
Fine particulate matter, 487
Nitrogen oxides, 9.
Source: U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, Ogden, Utah.