Wildfire Season Slams Southern Oregon’s Tourist Economy

Bootleg fire, Oregon, 2021

Small business owners are adapting their plans, purchasing their own firefighting equipment as blazes worsen

Share this article!

Stephen Hardesty, who owns the Arbor Inn in Oakridge, had his own personal firefighting truck gassed up and ready go when he received a wildfire evacuation order for him and his employees Sept. 9 as the Cedar Creek fire swept through the region.

The anxiety in his voice was palpable during an interview with Oregon Business. His primary concern was his employees still working in the wildfire evacuation zone. But he was also worried about his property. He says wildfire smoke has meant a sagging tourism season for the last five years, and any fire damage would mean even more lost revenue.

He says he has received no support from the state or other organizations to protect his business. And, he says, had the blaze reached his hotel, he was was prepared to fight the fire himself, using a truckload of hoses, sprinklers and gas-powered water pumps – another unexpected business expense this year, that cost his small business around $1,000.

The Cedar Creek fire, which grew from 18,000 acres on Sept. 6 to over 92,000 in under two weeks, is just one of 21 wildfires currently burning across the state, according to Oregon Wildfire Response & Recovery.  Gov. Kate Brown has requested an emergency declaration from the federal government, which would allow the state to access federal funds for wildfire response and preparation.

Worsening wildfires have had a major economic impact across the state — including Southern Oregon’s tourist economy, where more destructive wildfire seasons are upending traditional business models.

“Some businesses have managed to flex their operation to host tourists in late spring and early summer, shut down for wildfire season and then reopen. But it’s been hard because we don’t have enough data on wildfires and they are not easy to predict,” says Eli Matthews, President of the Chamber of Commerce of Medford and Jackson County. He says communication from the state and wildfire warning systems have improved since 2020, but there are still many unknowns. “All we know right now is that when wildfire smoke hits, tourism dries up.”

According to a 2019 report funded by Travel Southern Oregon, the 2018 wildfire season had a devastating impact on tourism in the region. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival lost $2 million in revenue due to canceled performances. Crater Lake National Park saw a 14% drop in July and August visitations that year.

The report also found wildfires played a significant role in people’s plans to visit the area. More than 70% of respondents looking to travel to Southern Oregon reported that wildfire smoke was a factor in deciding when they would visit. Only 21% intended to come in August.

“The wildfires have made significant impact on revenue in the last couple of years, especially from the standpoint of recreation businesses, which have changed over from servicing tourists to servicing firefighters,” says Matthews, who says the revenue from contractors and firefighters isn’t enough to account for the lost tourism.

“You get a big burst of business from firefighters and contractors, and then it just depends on how much of the forest burns up,” says Hardesty. “I don’t know what the future is going to bring, but it’s going to impact all our businesses going forward. It’s the little towns going to suffer.”

To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here


Latest from Sander Gusinow