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Oregon Experiences Economic Fallout From Wildfire Smoke


In the western part of this country, wildfires are getting bigger, and there are more of them. That's driven, in part, by a warming climate. Smoke from those fires is becoming a problem. It can linger for weeks, which is a health risk. And now it's starting to hurt local economies. Jes Burns is with Oregon Public Broadcasting and NPR's energy and environment team. She has this story.

JES BURNS, BYLINE: You know the end is near when a business starts selling off its shelves, clothes racks and displays. And that's what's happening here at the Ashland Outdoor Store.


BURNS: But most people are coming in to buy discounted headlamps, sleeping pads and climbing gear.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You say they're 20 percent off?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. I'll take a hundred feet of that one.

O’MELIA: Hey, you want to cut me a hundred feet of 5 mil cord?

CASSIDY: Darn right I do.

O’MELIA: Awesome. Thanks, Cassidy.

BURNS: The store has been around for about 25 years. Word of its impending closure spread quickly through this town of about 20,000 at the base of the Cascade-Siskiyou Mountains. At the busy checkout, customers ask store clerk Megan O’Melia what happened.

O’MELIA: When there's so much smoke, no one wants to be outside. So no one buys outdoor gear. And the tourists will come to town.


O’MELIA: And they don't buy stuff, so it's like a snowball.

BURNS: Outdoor Store co-owner Steve Rice says lack of snow last winter had hurt the business. Then came the wildfires and smoke.

STEVE RICE: July is when the smoke hit. We actually did OK in July. And then, boom, August - 9 days into August, I ran a sales report. And we were way off.

BURNS: That was right as Oregon's Rogue Valley experienced about four solid weeks of unhealthy air quality. The streets were often empty, except for ash-dusted cars and the thick beige fog that smelled like campfires.

RICE: There was enough time for the tourists to be able to make the decisions not to come. And it was also enough time for us locals to be looking outside the valley, saying, where am I going to go to get away from this?

BURNS: It wasn't just the Ashland Outdoor Store that was hit. Hotel and restaurant spending was down, and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce's Dana Preston says some member sales have been off 20 to 60 percent. Preston is on the chamber's Smoke Preparedness Task Force. Yes, that's a thing now.

DANA PRESTON: There's a lot of businesses who are really starting to think about, OK, what practices do I make - what changes can I make in my business to better weather out these situations should they reoccur?

BURNS: That's exactly what the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is doing. The Ashland festival is one of the biggest economic drivers in the region.

JULIE CORTEZ: We can't predict what things are going to be like, but we also can't, you know, put our heads in the sand and pretend...

BURNS: After cancelling or moving 26 outdoor performances last summer, the festival's Julie Cortez says they're making adjustments. In previous years, the festival was able to settle with insurers to recover some of the losses from smoked-out plays. But now...

CORTEZ: Smoke damages are just - from my understanding, are just not typically covered by insurance companies very often anymore.

BURNS: There have been layoffs, and the festival decided not to schedule outdoor shows during smoke season in 2019 just in case. They're also 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 think differently. Ashland realtor Colin Mullane says it's challenging to tease out the exact impact of smoke on the housing market. But...

COLIN MULLANE: It really is front of mind now.

BURNS: He says he expects to see 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.

MULLANE: Those that are looking at Ashland for that are now starting to factor in potentially the impact of having smoke in their lives for two, three, four months out of the year.

BURNS: And the last thing Southern Oregon wants is a reputation for smoky summers. For NPR News, I'm Jes Burns in Ashland.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOKIMONSTA'S "SMOKE & MIRRORS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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