Last month, the Carr Fire forced nearly 40,000 people to flee their homes in Redding and the surrounding area. More than a thousand homes were destroyed and many businesses took a major hit. Now, as the smoke literally begins to clear, residents are dealing with the economic fallout of the disaster.
As the tour boat pulls away from the shoreline of Lake Shasta, Matthew Doyle chats with a handful of his customers on their way to visit the scenic caverns across the lake.
“Seems like primarily all of you are from California, so you’re all dealing with the smoke” (“Don’t go to L.A.”) (laughs)
Doyle runs Shasta Caverns and Lake Shasta Dinner Cruises, a popular tourist attraction on this lake about 20 miles north of Redding. It’s early afternoon and the sun is shining, but a persistent haze hangs over the lake and you can taste the smoke from the wildfires that are still burning around the region. Doyle says his summer season had been humming along nicely until the Carr fire broke out in late July. Then, as word of the devastation spread, cancellations began to roll in.
“Compared to last year,” he says, “from the beginning of August to now, we’re down about 75 percent.”
Lake Shasta wasn’t directly affected by the Carr fire, and Doyle says he spent a lot of time correcting misinformation on social media. But air quality has continued to be a challenge.
“Sometimes we can’t run a tour because the smoke has come in,” he says. “And then an hour later we’re running tours and it’s all cleared out.”
Outdoor recreation and tourism businesses like Doyle’s make up a significant part of the economy in far-northern California. And one major driver of local tourism -- Whiskeytown National Recreation Area – is closed indefinitely due to fire damage.
But Loree Byzick says lots of businesses took a hit when the Carr fire swept through …
“People just weren’t spending money. They weren’t there. They were evacuated or they were in shock.”
Byzick is with Superior California Economic Development, a non-profit agency that works to boost the economy in the north state. She says for the first week or so, much of Redding’s retail trade dried up.
“We’ve talked with the corner neighborhood grocery store that serviced everybody in a neighborhood then all of a sudden people stopped coming and their sales plummeted.”
Byzick’s group offers small, low-interest loans to help businesses keep the doors open until help from federal agencies comes through …
In the cavernous interior of a former K-Mart store in Redding, dozens of people line up at the newly-opened Disaster Recovery Center, a kind of one-stop shop set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- or FEMA.
“You can talk to FEMA, you can apply for our loans, you can talk to the DMV, and the CHP and you can get your passport replaced.”
Chelsea Irvine is with the Small Business Administration, which --- along with FEMA – offers financial assistance to disaster victims.
“We can keep employees paid, we can keep the lights on, we can keep rent paid,” she says.
The SBA can lend up to $2 million to help businesses get back on their feet after a disaster. But it’s not just businesses that are suffering. Irvine explains that the Small Business Administration also offers disaster recovery loans to non-profits, homeowners, even renters.
“So for those people who are renting a home of an apartment that’s been damages,” she says, “we actually can replace everything that you’ve lost with these disaster assistance loans.”
While that federal money is crucial for businesses and households, Loree Byzick from the economic development group says the damage to this economically-fragile region is hard to calculate at this point. She says the area still hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession of 2008.
And as the climate trends hotter and drier, Byzick is hearing from business people getting nervous that the growing length and severity of fire season could lead potential visitors to decide to vacation elsewhere.
“We hope that by next summer, everything will be fine,” she says. “Bookings will be back up again. People will want to visit our area. But the thought that’s in someone’s mind when a major disaster or a forest fire happens like this, takes a long time to go away.”
For his part, Ed Rullman isn’t too worried. Rullman is president of the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association, a group that promotes tourism in the region. Sitting outside the hotel and restaurant he runs in Redding, he doesn’t think fire and smoke will be an ongoing drag on the local economy.
“Look at it this way,” he says. “Yosemite’s having the same issue right now, they’ve got a huge fire in Yosemite. But people won’t stop going to Yosemite.”
As the fires are brought under control – and as blue skies return – that optimism could prove well-founded. It may be years before it becomes clear whether the disruption caused by this year’s wildfires was a one-off – or if it represents the beginning of a new normal in California’s north state.