Curry County was among the top three financial losers due to wildfires last summer, a new report from Travel Oregon indicates.
The study results, while now quantified, might not surprise survivors of the Chetco Bar Fire, which burned 191,125 acres and came within 5 miles of the Brookings city limits. But such studies are often required if a community plans to seek funding to help those who were affected during natural disasters.
The numbers are still astounding, officials agreed.
The study shows that statewide, $51.5 million was lost in visitor spending, including $16 million in wages and $368,000 and $1.5 million in local and state tax receipts, respectively.
Businesses reported smoke was the worst problem, followed by the visitor perceptions regarding smoke-related discomfort or danger from the fires, road closures and evacuations.
Smoke was particularly widespread, resulting in 451 unhealthy air quality readings across the state — 65 percent more than all the previous high readings between 2000 and 2016.
Respondents to the survey portion of the study showed the Eagle Creek Fire in the Columbia River Gorge had the most impact, followed by the Chetco Bar Fire.
Affected most were lodging and food industries, followed by retail, the report reads, and about half of the respondents said they believe the 2017 fire season will adversely affect business this year because potential visitors might look less favorably on fire-ravaged areas.
The information compiled in the report was culled from tax receipts, tourism organizations and information supplied from lodging owners, casinos, campground hosts, restaurants, retailers, guide operators and event organizers, among others.
The fires of 2017
Last summer, Oregon lost 1.2 million acres in wildfires that caused $454 million in containment costs.
“Wildfires can have a disportionate impact on the travel industry because travel — particularly for leisure — is a discretionary expenditure and one that can be redirected to alternate locations or rescheduled,” the report reads.
Respondents to an online survey said the most significant fire was the Eagle Creek Fire, located in a major metropolitan area and that shut down Interstate 84 and jumped over the Columbia River into Washington.
But the Chetco Bar Fire — far from any major city and in a county comprised of much fewer residents and notably less reported about on televised news — was cited as the second-most significant conflagration. It also cost the most to contain — at about $72 million.
“Wildfires can have a particularly severe impact on small visitor and recreation businesses in rural areas where fires often occur,” the report reads. “The season when fires are most prevalent — August and September — is often the peak period for these businesses, and demand cannot be shifted to other parts of the calendar.
Hitting the wallets
Curry County suffered the largest financial hit during the Chetco Bar Fire, which started July 15, blew up in a Chetco Effect wind pattern in mid-August and wasn’t extinguished until seasonal rains arrived in October. It burned for 111 days.
According to the survey, Curry County took a 3.19 percent hit in lodging, bringing it down to a year-end decrease of 3.09 percent. The next hardest-hit counties were Deschutes and Jefferson counties, both at -2.28 percent, followed by East Multnomah County, which experienced a 2.05 percent decline in lodging sales.
State parks along the Southern Oregon Coast saw mixed results, with an overall increase of 1.8 percent, with the exception of Alfred A. Loeb State Park, from which campers were evacuated as fire threatened to burn through.
Loeb Park hosted 26,456 campers in 2016 and 21,325 last year, a decline of 19.4 percent. Harris Beach State Park, despite thick smoke right on the coast, saw an increase of 1.8 percent, from 97,075 overnight campers in 2016 and 98,858 last year. And Humbug Mountain State Park saw an increase of 20.2 percent, from 35,148 to 42,251 visitors. Cape Blanco also saw an increase of 2.6 percent.
Overall, the study reads, state campgrounds saw an increase of 1.6 percent in overnight use, which researchers attributed to campers relocating to other parks.
In Curry, Jackson and Josephine counties, no lodging data information was available by which sales figures could be converted to monthly statistics, the report reads. For those areas, the impacts were calculated using survey data from businesses and a calculation using data from Deschutes County, which was also similarly struck by fires.
“As part of the business and organization survey conducted for this research, businesses were asked to report the proportion of their sales gained or lost due to fire-related conditions,” the report explained.
Curry County lodging owners anticipated taking in a total of $133.8 million in 2017, but the fires knocked it back to $129.7 million, the report reads.
Another factor is the percentage of people employed in the tourism sector, the research shows. Curry County, with 19.2 percent of its working population in that industry, was hit proportionately harder than counties less dependent on visitors.
Earnings losses amounted to $16 million statewide, with Curry County employees taking a $305,000 hit, including furloughs and loss of wages and tips. The food services industry fell short by $13.9 million statewide.
A number of respondents said they were concerned about the long-term adverse effects of the fire season, with 38 percent anticipating business to suffer this year due to last year’s fires.
The study indicates many believe consumers’ negative perceptions related to the fires and a diminished appearance of the area burned will continue to deter business. A full 46 percent said they believe visitors’ anger at last year’s inconveniences will play into that, as well.
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .