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Officials seek state help for businesses impacted by fire

Reduced revenues and cash flow for businesses due to wildfires this summer could impact their access to credit.

COURTESY U.S. FOREST SERVICE - The Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge burns the night of Sept. 4, 2017, in this Forest Service photo. Development officials want the Oregon Legislature to provide funding to help businesses impacted by this summer's wildfires.SALEM — This summer's harsh fire season left behind economic damages that Oregon officials and members of the business community are still trying to quantify.

Although the state is still researching the extent of the impact, economic development officials want to ask the Legislature in the upcoming short legislative session for funds for low-interest loans for small businesses affected by wildfires, perhaps triggered by an official disaster declaration by the governor.

Reduced revenues and cash flow for businesses due to disruptive wildfires this summer could impact their credit ratings and their access to capital, Jason Lewis-Berry, director of Regional Solutions and jobs and economy policy adviser to Gov. Kate Brown, told legislators on Tuesday.

The state's employment department said late last month that the fires didn't impact the unemployment rate statewide, but certain regions suffered higher job losses in September.

About 600 more leisure and hospitality jobs in Central Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge and southwest Oregon were cut in September than is typical, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Lewis-Berry said the state is still collecting data on lodging tax receipts and insurance claims, which may provide a fuller picture of the economic impact.

Special wildfire recovery councils in Southwest Oregon and the Columbia River Gorge are also working on recommendations to help local economies bounce back. In those areas, the Chetco Bar and Eagle Creek Fires were particularly severe.

"We're trying to have this be a data-driven and locally-driven process to inform the kind of support we can deliver," Lewis-Berry said.

Broader economic impacts were also felt in Eastern Oregon — not only did fires affect air quality, but road closures of Interstate 84 on the state's northern border likely impacted summer travel and commerce to and from Eastern Oregon, Lewis-Berry told legislators Tuesday.

"Even though Eastern Oregon technically wasn't directly impacted by the fires, you certainly had a lot of people and businesses that were due to the road closures," Lewis-Berry said.

The interstate was closed 19 days eastbound and eight days westbound. State economists calculated that each day the interstate was closed cost shippers an extra $250,000 to $290,000, Lewis-Berry said.

He added that the state parks department also estimates that it lost $157,000 in expected revenues due to fire season, while needing an additional $150,000 for restoration costs at state parks.

While wildfires are nothing new for the state's rural areas east of the mountains, poor air quality due to smoke brought the wildfire issue front and center in the state's cities as well this summer, including Portland, Eugene and Salem. It also led to closures of popular events across the state.

Cycle Oregon, an annual cycling tradition in Central and Southern Oregon, was canceled, as were some outdoor performances at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. This year's Sisters Folk Festival west of Bend also got the ax.

As a result, Lewis-Berry said, the fire season posed a threat to the Oregon "brand" of world-class tourism and recreation, which Travel Oregon and other groups are trying to protect.

There are also environmental concerns in areas affected by fire, such as watershed problems and soil erosion, which could also lead to public safety and public health issues.

But the wildfires aren't likely to stop anytime soon — which may require local economies to adapt.

"We really need to think about economic resilience in communities that could be affected by fires in the future," Lewis-Berry said.

Mark Johnson, president and CEO of Oregon Business and Industry, a business lobbying group, and chair of the local recovery council for the Eagle Creek Fire on the Columbia Gorge, agreed.

Johnson, who stepped down from his post as a state representative from Hood River earlier this month, said that the Columbia River Gorge communities needed more year-round jobs that weren't dependent on a "somebody from Portland coming out to either buy an ice cream cone or a pint of beer."