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Wildfire season in southern Oregon and far-northern California is starting earlier, lasting longer and putting more smoke into the air than ever before. Rural economies based on tourism and outdoor recreation are seeing losses mount, year after year, as visitors cancel vacations to smoke-afflicted areas. Now, locals are facing the prospect of a "new normal" that threatens the livability of their communities.

The West Coast Tourism Industry Starts To Adapt To A Smoky Future

Liam Moriarty/JPR News
Matthew Doyle, general manager at Shasta Caverns, and Tim Lehman, captain of the Cavern Princess tour boat, ride across Lake Shasta with a group of tourists on Aug, 17. The business is one of many which suffered loss of business from wildfire smoke.

West Coast businesses that depend on the summertime tourist dollar took a big hit from this years’ wildfires and smoke.

The same thing happened last year. And two years before that. Now, the idea that smoky summers may become the norm is beginning to take hold, and tourist operators -- and the towns that rely on them -- are looking for ways to adapt.

For decades, the Green Show has been a staple of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. The free outdoor show, six nights a week all summer, has a changing cast of musicians, dancers and other performers. La Victoria – a Latina trio from Los Angeles – made their Green Show debut in 2016.

This summer, La Victoria played the Green Show’s final performance in late August, seven weeks before the season was supposed to end. The reason? Persistent unhealthy levels of smoke from regional wildfires.

Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director Bill Rausch says there were 26 performances of main stage plays at the festival’s 1200-seat outdoor theatre that were cancelled or relocated to a much smaller indoor venue because of smoke.

“Our losses this year that are smoke-related will be over two million dollars,” he says.

Then there’s the impact on the wider community …

“The most profound hit financially is people who just choose not to come because of smoke.”

Rausch says those people don’t see plays, they don’t go to bars and restaurants. They don’t go fishing or biking or river rafting.

Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism agency, calculated that during last year’s smoky summer, Oregon businesses, employees and governments lost nearly $70 million. This year’s losses haven’t been counted up yet, but they could well be more.

Recent wildfire-related impacts in California and Washington as well have brought West Coast tourism agencies together to tackle the threat. Ryan Becker, with Visit California, says one major initiative of the new West Coast Tourism Recovery Coalition is a website to make sure travelers have accurate information.

“You can get all the information you need about where are the impacts of the fires, where are the impacts of the smoke, travel planning resources, from all of us in California, Oregon and Washington, so you have it all at your fingertips,” he says.

Becker says many out-of-state tourists this summer had the impression from the news that the entire coast was on fire and cancelled vacation plans in places that were completely unaffected.

But letting prospective visitors know that things aren’t really as bad as they think will go only so far. Brad Niva – with Travel Southern Oregon, the regional tourism board -- acknowledges that smoke is likely becoming a regular part of summer here. Niva says if the tourist economy is going to survive, business people are going to have to get creative. 

“When we have these iconic businesses such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or Hellgate Jetboat Excursions or the Britt Festival, that could lose their business because the visitor will not come, we need to start thinking about re-inventing our tourism economy,” he says.

The first step is to get some data.

“We’ve actually started to do some research, like, ‘Who else has had to change their tourism economy?’ And we don’t really have a lot of examples.”

Oregon Governor Kate Brown recently announced a $51,000 grant to Travel Southern Oregon. It’ll pay for market research on consumer perceptions about the region and how wildfire and smoke may have changed their willingness to visit.

But business leaders are already pondering ways to adapt. Sandra Slattery heads the Ashland Chamber of Commerce.

“Maybe there’s a shift in the future, where more people come in the spring and maybe less come in the summer,” she says.

She says that aside from trying to shift tourism to the spring and fall, another idea is using air cleaners and filters to enhance indoor experiences.

“And you can then tell visitors, ‘You know what? Our businesses have retrofitted the interior of their spaces, so while the outside air may not be ideal, we can guarantee that you’ve going to have a wonderful time when you dine in Ashland, and shop here and stay here and go to a winery and a tasting room.’”

But Travel Southern Oregon’s Brad Niva say those options aren’t really available to the many outdoor-recreation operators that have made the region a summertime destination.

“Hiking, mountain biking, rafting, jet boating … Any of those things that are keyed to June, July and August, because we have higher water levels, we have great weather, usually very family-oriented because kids are out of school … That is a very difficult product to re-invent.”

Some hope a more aggressive program of thinning and prescribed burning in the surrounding forests will reduce the size and frequency of wildfires. But whether that will happen – or whether it would even work – is far from certain.

Meanwhile, communities that rely on the tourist trade are watching the climate on which their built their economies change. And it’s not yet clear what they can do to change with it.

Liam Moriarty has been covering news in the Pacific Northwest for three decades. He served two stints as JPR News Director and retired full-time from JPR at the end of 2021. Liam now edits and curates the news on JPR's website and digital platforms.