If you've traveled much of the West, you've seen the aftermath of wildfire. It's easy to spot, even long after the ground has turned from black to brown and then sprouts new green.
Many of the effects are less obvious, and we could see some of those in the months and years ahead in the parts of Idaho hard hit by this season's fires.
The biggest – not the only – may be the Beaver Creek fire, around the Wood River Valley, an area where thousands of people were told to evacuate. Some may have snarked at the news reports of wealthy homeowners shouting bitterly at sheriff's deputies from their Lexuses, but the wealthy weren't the only people affected.
August is usually a busy time at the stores and restaurants of Ketchum and Hailey, but not last week. Many businesses remained open, but traffic was light at best. A public radio news report last week quoted Sarah Hedrick, owner of Iconoclast Books at Ketchum, who said she hasn't yet paid off a large disaster loan from 2007, and now watches business drop. She said, “If I lose my bookstores – and I don't mean to a fire, I felt very confident my store was going to be safe – I then lose my house, I then lose my livelihood, and I have four children to support. You know, the reality of a fire has a completely different impact.”
And that's in the case of a fire stopped before it gets to town. Idaho hasn't for decades seen a wildfire actually destroy all or even a significant part of a town, but this season is showing it could happen. Some Beaver Creek fire fighters said this is the first time they have seen a fire come so close to a substantial-sized town.
A year ago the University of Oregon released a study from the Joint Fire Science Program finding that overall, the economic effect of wildfires is – surprise – mixed.
Cassandra Moseley, who worked on the project, said, "The increased spending on services related to fire suppression efforts certainly does not undo the social and economic damage caused by a wildfire. But that initial burst of money does offset some of the immediate economic damage. How the Forest Service spends its suppression money greatly influences how a community experiences a fire.”
A summary also suggested that, “...employment and wages in a county tend to increase during large wildfires. But those same fires often lead to longer-term instability in local labor markets, by amplifying seasonal “ups and downs” in employment over the subsequent year. Among the sectors most affected in the months following a fire are tourism and natural resources, which are often vital to the well-being of rural communities.”
It said that, “Local capture of suppression spending is important because it helps mediate labor market impacts. For every $1 million spent in the county, local employment increased 1 percent during the quarter of the fire.” The catch: Many counties, especially those small and rural, often lack the kinds of businesses that would “capture” the spending and cycle the money back into the local economy.
Of course, all of that is a separate issue from the loss of tourism in places that look not quite as pretty as they did before. Not to mention homes and businesses that are actually, you know, burned, or people injured or killed. All of which has to be factored in as Idaho plans ahead in a time of fire.