Wildfire Smoke Is Taking A Toll On Oregon’s Tourist Economy

Sep 6, 2017
Originally published on September 7, 2017 12:02 pm

The wildfires burning in much of Oregon this summer have blanketed the state with unhealthy levels of smoke. This has led a growing number of outdoor events to cancel during the height of the summer tourist season. At a time when many rural Oregon communities are already struggling, the economic impact could really hurt.

Each summer for 30 years, the Portland-based non-profit Cycle Oregon has held a week-long bike ride through the Oregon countryside. Steve Schultz, the group’s executive director, says this year’s ride signed up 2,300 cyclists from around the world, plus support staff.

“We’re a moving city of about 2,600 people,” he says. “So we take up a big footprint and we try to leave as much money as we can with that footprint.”

Cycle Oregon pays for support services in the communities it rides through. The group also estimates each of those bike riders spends an additional $200 during their week on the road.

“So we’re coming in on three quarters of a million dollars of economic impact that we bring in just by doing this seven days throughout the rural communities,” Schultz says.

The Cycle Oregon Classic ride was all set to go, starting this weekend. But the unhealthy levels of smoke covering the ride route through Dorena Lake, Bend and Crater Lake led the group to cancel the ride for the first time ever. Schultz says his crew loves to expose visitors to Oregon’s natural beauty -- and to bring tourist dollars to small Oregon towns.

“To not be able to do that, and not be able to go in and do what our passion is, is really devastating,” he says.

That disappointment and frustration is shared by event organizers and tourism operators around the region. Julie Cortez with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland says they’ve had to cancel at least six outdoor shows, including one that was stopped after the performance had already begun.

“Things looked OK before the show started,” she says. “And then they just went downhill really fast and it became very clear that it was not going to be a healthy environment for our actors to be in.”

The economic hit to the festival may not be huge; many of those theatergoers accepted the offer to see one of the festival’s indoor shows. But Cortez says the impacts ripple out into the local economy.

“It hurts everybody because we’re all so interconnected in this region, especially in terms of the dollars that come in on tourism, and so, if one sector of us gets hurt, it dings us all.”

Other groups are also looking at having to call off long-planned events. The annual Pine to Palm 100 ultramarathon race from Williams to Ashland, scheduled for this weekend, has been cancelled. As many as 300 runners had planned to attend.

Organizers at the Sisters Folk Festival are hoping the smoke will clear sufficiently to allow that show to go on, but they’re waiting until Wednesday to make a final decision. The event features 45 acts at 11 venues and draws nearly 5,000 people to the small town of Sisters, northwest of Bend. (UPDATE: On Wednesday, Sept 6, organizers announced "with profound regret" that the Sisters Folk Festival had been cancelled.)

Linnea Gagliano, with Travel Oregon, the state’s tourism commission, says the timing is especially bad.

“The summer months are really where travel and tourist businesses make their bread and butter, and to have things like Cycle Oregon cancelled, where they bring so much money into rural communities is disheartening,” she says.

Gagliano notes that tourism is an $11.3 billion industry in Oregon, employing more than 109,000 people.

“And anything that impacts that and might affect those job numbers is always really hard for us,” she says.

Brad Niva recalls 2013, when the Rogue River was closed for nearly two weeks by smoke. At that time, Niva owned a rafting business on the Rogue. He says the closure nearly bankrupted him.

“From a business standpoint there’s no way you can recoup that,” he says. “We had to cancel the first two weeks of August for prime rafting season. And it’s not like we can give them a raincheck, “Come back in September!” Because that doesn’t happen for a family traveling in from out of the state.”

Niva now works for Travel Southern Oregon. He says it’s not uncommon for there to be some smoke around during the summer fire season. But this year, he says …

“It really doesn’t matter where you are in our state, there is fire. Be it if you’re in Sunriver and there’s a challenge there, or Black Butte golf, y’know up in Sisters, Oregon and there’s fires there. It seems to be kind of everywhere now.”

Niva worries that all the talk of smoke could lead vacationers to steer clear of Oregon in the future.

Meanwhile, weather forecasters are calling for thunderstorms mid-week. They may bring rain, which could dampen the smoke. But those storms may also bring lightning, which could set off dozens of new fires throughout the region.

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