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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

Economic Woes Linger In Oregon Communities Scarred By Wildfire

File photo. The Eagle Creek fire burned more than 48,000 acres in the Columbia RIver Gorge.

The wildfires are largely out in places like the Columbia River Gorge and the south Oregon coast, but the economic fallout continues in many nearby Oregon communities. That was the message Tuesday during a meeting of the Oregon House Committee on Economic Development.

“I think residents in the Gorge are going to begin to measure time in pre-Eagle Creek and post-Eagle Creek, because it was such a traumatic event for our region,” said Mark Johnson, who until recently was a GOP state representative from Hood River.

Johnson is now the head of Oregon Business & Industry. He was referring to the Eagle Creek Fire, which started September 2 and eventually burned more than 48,000 acres. Although residents who evacuated have been allowed to return home, many attractions remain closed in the Gorge, including Multnomah Falls, Vista House and the Eagle Creek Trail.

“Businesses in these areas had sales drop by 30 to 60 percent, in their peak time,” said Jason Lewis-Berry, the jobs and economic policy advisor to Gov. Kate Brown.

Lewis-Berry cited an analysis from the Oregon Employment Department that found that at least 600 seasonal jobs ended “much earlier than usual” in communities affected by wildfires.

The summer’s toll also included the cancellation of iconic events such as Cycle Oregon and the Sisters Folk Festival. And while most of the programs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland were held as usual, executive director Cynthia Rider told lawmakers that nine of this summer’s outdoor performances were canceled due to oppressive smoke from nearby fires, costing the festival an estimated $600,000 in lost revenue.

Rider added that smoke has forced cancellations of outdoor plays in four of the past five summers. She’s worried about the long-term impact to the region’s reputation. 

“A disappointing vacation when all outdoor activities are unappealing at best, or impossible in certain situations, are a true threat to our region’s economic vitality,” she said. “This summer the smoke was so bad that we even started worrying about indoor health quality.”

Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, said businesses in his district are still suffering from the impact of this summer’s Chetco Bar Fire. The largest wildfire in Oregon this year started July 12 and burned more than 191,000 acres. It wasn’t officially contained until November 2, and many backcountry trails and roads are still closed.

But despite the fire, “We’re still there. We didn’t burn up,” Smith said. “Yes, it’s big, but we are open for business in southwest Oregon.”

Lewis-Berry, the governor’s advisor, said the impact from wildfires and smoke doesn’t show any sign of going away.

“We really need to think about economic resilience in communities that could be affected by fires in the future,” he said.

The governor’s office is working on a possible bill for the 2018 legislative session that would allow the state to issue low-interest loans to businesses in regions that the governor designates disaster areas.

“Small businesses that don’t have deep pockets and they get hit in their peak season, and then they have to get through the slow season until next season,” Lewis-Berry said. “That is something that is coming out as a major need.”