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After fire: Business survey says wages, sales, profits up in smoke

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A fleet of dozens of brand new golf carts were among the many assets lost in the Alta Lake fire last month.

OKANOGAN COUNTY — Power out, phones dead, Internet down, roads and rail line closed.

The lifelines of business suffered severely from the raging wildfire here in July, says a post-fire survey on the disaster’s impact to local enterprises. And merchandise, employees, sales and profits suffered along with them.

People look at the horrible devastation — burned houses, burned hillsides — and don’t even consider the damage done to businesses that couldn’t operate for days and weeks at a time,” said Roni Holder-Diefenbach, executive director of the county’s Economic Alliance. “We’re just learning about the severity of those losses.”

The Alliance’s survey — “Operational Business Impacts Caused by the Carlton Complex Fire” — contained responses from nearly 200 businesses in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County. Businesses in tourism, retail and agriculture sectors led the list of respondents, but dozens of other categories were represented — from breweries to massage therapists to dog-boarding kennels to major manufacturers.

Some businesses even reported increases in revenue due to visiting firefighters and sales of emergency goods.

The Alliance sent out the survey July 26 — 10 days after the fire swept through the Pateros area and destroyed more than 130 homes — to collect information needed to qualify for emergency grants and funding from state and federal agencies.

The info was used in part to convince Gov. Jay Inslee and the state Department of Commerce to set aside $150,000 in funds for “tourism rehabilitation.” And now, said Holder-Diefenbach, cities and chambers of commerce have joined to issue a call for a new marketing campaign that will recapture business in the last eight weeks of the area’s busiest tourist season.

The survey helps us hammer home that we need to act now to bring business back to our area,” said Holder-Diefenbach. “We need to let people know that much of Pateros didn’t burn and that many areas in the Methow Valley are as beautiful as ever. We’re open for business. Come and play.”

Listed anonymously, businesses responding to the survey ranged in size from one employee (mostly home-based businesses) to more than 50, with one respondent declaring 170 employees. Financial losses ranged from just a few dollars to $100,000 and more.

Losses included the expected: spoiled food, damaged machinery, expenses for electric generators, lost revenues from being closed with communications cut off. And the unexpected: irreplacable scientific samples, computers frazzled by power surges, valuable timber groves decimated.

Employees took a hit, too, said respondents. With power out for more than eight days, businesses were closed and employees lost wages. Some who lost houses and property were without shelter and food. Some were injured — “one broken ankle, one knee injury,” said a respondent — while fighting back the blaze. Fears grew, said respondents, of permanent job losses.

Only one business — Alta Lake Golf Course — suffered severe structural damage. On July 16, the fire swept through the Alta Lake area and burned the facility’s clubhouse, a maintenance shed and dozens of new golf carts. The manicured fairways and greens remained uncharred, but 52 homes were lost around the course’s perimeter.

In total, the survey reported, business owners ranked “negative cash flow” due to loss of power and roads as the top impact from the fire. Increased expenses, possible employee layoffs and securing migrant workers for late-summer and fall orchard work were other concerns.

Tourism may have suffered most, the survey indicated. “Obviously, the loss of tourism will be ongoing through the end of the fire season,” said one respondent. “We are fielding future cancellations, and reservations have dropped dramatically. It will be hard to calculate the loss of tourism due to (visitors’) future plans being changed.”

Said another: “We are a hotel in Winthrop. The main question we get, after a week with the power back on, is whether or not we are open and if there is anything left in the valley after the fire.”

And another wrote: “Lack of tourism in this town kills the economy. That is all we have.”

Comments from a broader range of business people included:

Independent contractor and realtor: Homes burned, land scorched making sales difficult to impossible. Loss of Internet, electricity and cell phones created canceled contracts, canceled (home) showings, canceled business and additional expenses … Took more time to fix issues due to lack of electricity, etc.”

The main thing we need is LOTS of customers. We make about nine months of our annual income in July and August. Our personal income for the next 12 months has already evaporated. We are now losing our operating income. Without some kind of economic aid, we will lose our home and business along with our entire retirement savings.”

We have an enormous cash flow emergency and need funds ASAP. We will not be able to cover our basic expenses, including payroll and business taxes. We will also struggle to cover payments to vendors. Our loss will be monumental.”

One respondent added a more positive spin:

This survey will help estimate business losses due to the fire. But for my business GAIN is the reality. Our hotel has been operating at 100-percent occupancy with displaced families, news crews, emergency management folks, firefighters, etc. I anticipate the fire will keep us well-booked the month of August.”

Reach Mike Irwin at 509-665-1179 or . Read his blog Everyday Business. follow him on Twitter at @MikeIrwinWW.