Wildfire Smoke Continues To Disrupt Southern Oregon Economic Rhythms
You know the end is near when a business starts selling off its shelves, clothes racks and displays — and that’s what’s been happening for the past couple weeks at the Ashland Outdoor Store.
The store has been around for about 25 years and word of its impending closure has spread quickly through this town of about 20,000 people at the base of the Cascade-Siskiyou Mountains.
On a busy Tuesday afternoon, most people are coming in to buy discounted headlamps, sleeping pads and climbing gear. And when they get to the check out, many ask store clerk Megan O’Melia: “What happened?”
“When there’s so much smoke, no one wants to be outside, so no one buys outdoor gear. And when no tourists come to town, and they don’t buy stuff, so it’s like a snowball,” she said.
Outdoor Store co-owner Steve Rice said the snowball actually started rolling earlier — last winter when the snow didn’t fall and gear sales were low. But spring was actually looking good.
“July is when the smoke hit. We actually did OK in July. And then, boom, August. Nine days into August, I ran a sales report and we were way off,” Rice said.
That was right as the Rogue Valley experienced about four solid weeks of unhealthy air quality. The streets were nearly empty, except for ash-dusted cars and the thick beige fog that smelled like campfires.
“There was enough time for tourists to be able to make decisions not to come. And it was also enough time for us locals to be looking outside of valley saying, ‘Where am I going to go to get away from this?’” Rice said.
In 2017, statewide tourism losses due to wildfire and smoke were $51.5 million, according to a Travel Oregon report. About $3 million of that loss was in Jackson County. That year in Jackson County, there were 25 days where the air quality reached unhealthy levels.
In summer 2018, the Rogue Valley air quality was unhealthy 37 days. That’s an almost 50 percent increase from the previous year. In addition, for a while last summer, the conditions were unrelenting. Residents experienced nearly four weeks straight of bad air; half of those days were at hazardous levels.
Hotel and restaurant spending was down about 5 percent. And much larger business losses have been reported to the Ashland Chamber of Commerce by its members.
The chamber launched a Smoke Preparedness Task Force a couple years back to help businesses and the community get through. They’ve focused on education, creating “ SmokeWise Ashland,” an online resource featuring videos and information on things like the proper use of masks and what kinds of HVAC filtration is needed to ensure employees and customers have healthy air to breathe inside.
“There’s a lot of business really starting to think about what practices do I make, what changes can I make in my business to better weather these situations should they reoccur,” said Dana Preston, membership and business development director for the Ashland chamber.
Answering these kinds of questions is exactly what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing. The Ashland festival is one of the biggest economic drivers in the region.
“We can’t predict what things are going to be like, but we can’t put our heads in the sands and pretend,” said Julie Cortez, OSF's communications manager.
After canceling or moving 26 outdoor performances last summer, the festival is making adjustments. Previous years, the OSF was able to settle with insurers to recover some of the losses from smoked-out plays. But that possibility is looking less likely now.
“Smoke damages, from my understanding, are just not typically covered by insurance companies very often anymore,” she said. “We’re not moving forward with anything written in expecting insurance claims to happen as a result of smoke.”
The festival has also laid off staff. They’re not scheduling any outdoor shows from July 30 to Sept. 8 for the 2019 season. And they’re looking into longer-term solutions, like adding a retractable roof to the outdoor theater.
Even businesses that don’t rely on summer tourism are starting to adjust to the smoke.
Ashland realtor Colin Mullane said it’s challenging to tease out the impact of smoke on the housing market, but that the smoke is “really front of mind now.”
Mullane said he expects there will start to be some changes in the annual real estate cycle in the region — things like when people list houses and who chooses to move to the area, which has traditionally been known for its high quality of life.
“Those looking at Ashland for that are now starting to factor in the impact, potentially, of having smoke in their life for two, three, four months out of the year,” he said.
With climate change and relatively limited pushes for forest restoration in the West, wildfire season is only expected to become more intense.
In the face of this, many in Ashland are trying to remain positive about the ability of the region’s economy to be resilient in the face of future summers of wildfire smoke.
Rice, the Outdoor Store co-owner, said his outlook is a little more sobering as he closes the doors on an Ashland institution. He said he doesn’t think his store will be the only business saying goodbye given the changes to business plans underway and concern Ashland is getting a reputation for poor air quality in the summer.
“Even if we don’t have smoke, we’re going to be hurt by this year’s smoke next year,” he said. “And sadly, the only thing that might save that is if for some reason California is smoky and Washington is smoky and we’re not.”
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