KETCHUM • The 173 square mile Beaver Creek wildfire has already cost the Wood River Valley millions of dollars in firefighting resources alone. As the flames die, private and public development organizations are gathering for economic damage control.
Since no businesses actually burned, the first step is to gauge indirect financial loss to sectors of the economy such as tourism and tax revenues. Once business leaders have an idea of what the loss is to the regional economy, they will help various businesses and organizations apply for state and federal relief.
Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter declared the area in a state of emergency earlier this month, which could garner state funds for business owners. Federal officials are determining if the wildfire merits a federal emergency declaration, which could also help businesses affected by the fire.
Tourism and outdoor recreation comprise 60 percent of the annual income in the Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley areas. The massive Beaver Creek fire tore through the Wood River Valley, causing thousands of evacuations and dozens of road closures, pretty much at the worse possible time: the peak of summer tourism, said Harry Griffith, director of economic development group, Sustain Blaine. While the fire is 90 percent contained, it’s just the beginning for business leaders turned “economic firefighters.”
“You can talk to any businessman, you can park anywhere you want (in Sun Valley),” Griffith said. “Normally downtown is packed. People are walking, lots are full, people are riding bikes, buying stuff. There’s very little of that activity right now. …It’s pretty scary.”
Despite the Beaver Creek fire moving ever closer to its place in local history, tourists are staying away. Like most communities effected by natural disaster, the persona of danger lingers longer than the disaster itself.
“It’s not the psychology of a tourist to say, ‘oh the fire is 80 percent contained so now we’re going to go there.’ The psychology of a tourist is just that, ‘there was a fire there so now I’m going to go somewhere else.’ …I’ve gotten calls from people asking how many businesses burned and we haven’t had one,” Griffith said.
The best way to battle negative messages shrouding the Wood River Valley is to change them, said Larry Schoen, Chairman of Blaine County Board of Commissioners.
“All these organizations will be coming together to send a clear message that, although we had a devastating wildfire on the borders of all our cities, it’s still a beautiful place to visit,” Schoen said.
Besides damage to tourism from the fire’s national media coverage, there are many others in the financial aftermath of its flames. Major events were cancelled in the area including a curtailed symphony season in Sun Valley and the cancellation of the annual writers’ conference in Sun Valley.
“There is a whole series of different levels of loss ranging from retailer revenue to gross margin,” he said. “We’ll look at August’s share versus last year. There’s the Sun Valley Company that looks at bookings and percentages of occupancy, what their sales and margins were this year versus last year.”
Many businesses lining the Wood River Valley cut hours for their employees, amid the empty streets.
“This is the heart of the tourist economy so I’m sure people will be thinking about how to market the area,” Schoen said. “Business have been hit hard and so, as a county commissioner, I’m very concerned about individual businesses and the people that own them and the families and employees that have really been hit hard. The fire itself and its aftermath, I think it’s very important to collaborate as a community to do what we need to do to survive.”
Calculating a dollar amount of direct and indirect loss to the economy is essential to getting state and federal relief to business owners, Schoen said. A range of business owners, private and public sector economic development people are planning to gather Thursday to begin the mending process.
“People who aren’t as well connected as I, need to know that we’re OK,” Schoen said. “They need to be reassured the fire is not threatening their community and we will move forward. I want to move forward as a political leader to sent that message and lend moral support to anyone who has a business, has a family and wants to get back into normal life.”
The meeting is planned for noon at the Community Library in Ketchum, Schoen said. Anyone who has input on the economic implications of the fire is welcome to attend.