Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 @ 3:44 p.m. / Business, Emergencies, Fire

'Up In Smoke': UC Cooperative Extension Survey Finds That the Fires Have Cost Del Norte Citizens $1,790 and Businesses $6,371, On Average

Firefighters line up for breakfast at their camp in Gasquet while battling the Smith River Complex. | Photo courtesy of Inciweb

(Updated at 8:52 a.m. Friday to clarify a statement that businesses that responded to the UC Cooperative Extension's survey reported their average decline in revenue dropped by 53.54 percent.)

It took two days after Pacific Power de-energized its transmission line for Hiouchi Cafe to bring in a generator.

The utility serving Del Norte County had cut off electricity to the community ahead of the Smith River Complex wildfires to avoid sparking further hazards. People were without power for about five days. But for Hiouchi Cafe, the scramble to bring in a generator and the electricians to install it was worth it, Head Chef Cody Magana said.

“We’re still open,” he told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Thursday. “We’re still doing what we can. But while the road’s closed not a lot of tourists are coming up here. (The fire) has definitely affected our business, but we’ll ride it out. It’ll get better again like it always does.”

The wildfires cost Del Norte County businesses $6,371 on average, while residents reported incurring costs of about $1,790 on average, according to the results of a UC Cooperative Extension survey.

Most of Del Norte County was without power for about five days, and for residents those extra costs came from lost wages, having to buy generators and fuel as well as food spoilage.

“The average individual gross income in Del Norte County is $2,059 per month, according to the U.S. Census,” Alec Dompka, economic development advisor for the Cooperative Extension’s Del Norte office. “With the fire and power outages causing extra costs of $1,790.47, this is similar to a month’s gross income going up in smoke.”

The U.C. Cooperative Extension deployed two surveys, one for residents and one for businesses and nonprofit organizations. Dompka handed surveys to more than 50 businesses between Klamath and the Oregon border. They were also posted on notice boards and at the Del Norte County Library and were made available online.

According to Dompka, the U.C. Cooperative Extension received 320 responses to its residential survey and 149 responses to its business survey. The surveys are still open and the UC Cooperative Extension will continue to report on the costs.

Dompka pointed out that local governments and tribes could use the data from the survey to get a full picture of the impacts the fires had on the community. It could also be combined with other statewide data to help quantify wildfire costs throughout California, he said.

“When private nonprofits and government agencies are thinking about where to direct resources, it can be helpful to have a dollar figure on the damages in hand,” he said. “Going forward, this data can be helpful in contextualizing wildfire mitigation costs. For example, if the National Forest system is conducting a cost-benefit analysis of a fuel reduction program in the Smith River (National Recreation Area), they can use this data to get a more exact picture of the benefits.”

The Smith River Complex has been mapped at 83,974 acres and is 8 percent contained, according to a U.S. Forest Service news release Thursday. The Southwest Incident Management Team 2 took command of the fire from California Interagency Incident Management Team 15 on Thursday.

A fourth community meeting has been scheduled for 6 p.m. Friday at the Del Norte County Fairgrounds. The meeting will be streamed live on the Six Rivers National Forest Facebook page.

On Thursday, the Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office relaxed evacuation orders for the community of Gasquet, allowing residents to return to their homes, though asking them to be on standby in case they need to evacuate again. The DNSO is also urging residents to stay home in order to avoid conflict on the roads with firefighters particularly between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. U.S. 199 is still closed north of Pioneer Road and Rowdy Creek Road is closed at the top of Low Divide Road.

The relaxed evacuation order is good news for Gasquet residents, said Cindy Vosburg, executive director of the Crescent City-Del Norte County Chamber of Commerce. She said she's got N-95 masks available for anyone who needs them, pointing out folks will encounter smoky conditions as they return to their homes.

But, Vosburg said, both fire's impact on tourism worries her. She pointed to Dompka's survey, which concluded that August and September are important for Del Norte County, and said her message has been that the community is open, particularly for those traveling along U.S. 101.

Still, Vosburg's message was different when Del Norte's lights were out.

"Pacific Power getting us those generators was a gamechanger," she said, referring to the industrial size generators the utility plugged into its substations. "What I had been hearing from businesses is once the highway closed, their business dropped immediately, 50 percent, and Alec's survey numbers are proving that out."

Of the those that responded to the Cooperative Extension's survey, businesses experienced an average decline of 53.54 percent in revenue compared to this time last year. This occurred during the wildfires before Pacific Power cut electricity.

During the power outage, the businesses that responded to the survey reported losing 70 percent of their revenue on average. Even after the power was restored, businesses reported losing 71 percent of their revenue on average, according to the survey.

Across all Del Norte County industries, 42.11 percent of businesses stated they had to close during the power outage and 15.70 percent are still closed.

In the foodservice and retail industries, 36.36 percent of businesses closed during the power outage, though most have reopened. Before the power outage, businesses reported losing more than 50 percent of their revenue due to the wildfires. During the power outage, businesses that responded to the survey reported losing 70.92 percent of their revenue.

In the lodging and camping sectors, businesses that responded reported losing 58 percent of their revenue this year compared to the same time last year, according to the Cooperative Extension's survey. During the power outage, businesses lost 81 percent of their revenue. Businesses report continuing to lose more than 70 percent of their revenue though power has been restored.

More than half had to close during the power outage and 30 percent of campgrounds and lodging facilities remain closed.

According to combined sales and transiency occupancy tax data, Del Norte’s restaurant and retail industry has  lost $66,578.97 a day since the power was restored in much of Crescent City.

The lodging sector has lost $28,521.69 per day since power was restored to most businesses in Crescent City. Nearly 16 percent of businesses report still not having power.

“If these losses continue at the same rate, by the end of august, the restaurant sector losses will be well over $500,000 from the loss of business alone,” Dompka reports. “Lodging losses from the decline in business will top $250,000 during this time.”

Vosburg said she had heard that nearly 100 percent of businesses were forced to close when the power went out, but then noted that some, like Y Liquors, were asking their customers to pay in cash. Some restaurants, like SeaQuake Brewing, broke out their food trucks to serve their customers, she said.

As businesses get a better handle of what they lost due to the emergency, Vosburg said it's the chamber's job to be their voice to ensure they can access resources through the Small Business Administration and organizations like the Humboldt Area Foundation.

Vosburg pointed to an email communication today between her, HAF representative Leila Roberts and John Driscoll, who represents U.S. Congressman Jared Huffman.

In that thread, Roberts said if a disaster was declared at the federal level, the Small Business Administration would provide disaster loans and establish a Disaster Center. However, the process could take longer with wildfires rather than earthquakes, Roberts said.

Driscoll said federal assistance is more likely to come from the Small Business Administration, which can declare a disaster on its own, freeing up loans and establishing a disaster center. He said the threshold for individual assistance through FEMA is very high and rarely occurs in rural areas.

Still, Driscoll urged both the Del Norte County and individual residents to report their losses.

"Damage to structures, property, losses of food, losses of business due to the 199 closure, etc...," Driscoll said in his email.


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