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News / Business / Clark County Business

Gorge businesses watch fire, wonder about future

Fire disrupts access, could damage tourism industry

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer
Published: September 5, 2017, 6:34pm
2 Photos
Rose Zamani, from left, Reza Imani and Amir Imani of Skamania General Store continue to help customers while uncertain about the future because of the wildfire burning nearby. Businesses in the Gorge face logistical challenges with road closures and evacuations.
Rose Zamani, from left, Reza Imani and Amir Imani of Skamania General Store continue to help customers while uncertain about the future because of the wildfire burning nearby. Businesses in the Gorge face logistical challenges with road closures and evacuations. Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian Photo Gallery

The Eagle Creek Fire, swaying with unpredictable winds, is driving Columbia River Gorge residents from their homes and posing unique challenges to firefighters.

As roads closed, businesses were also being disrupted. Shipments face delays and workers are either evacuated or kept home.

Some fear the fire may scar the region’s tourism industry, too.

“We don’t know what the Gorge is going to look like when this is done,” said Kevin Waters, a Port of Skamania commissioner who owns a brewery and a wedding venue. “It has the potential of not bringing people out into the Gorge, and that’s what our pub lives and dies by.”

The fire had burned 10,000 acres near Cascade Locks, Ore., as of Tuesday afternoon, and spread across the Columbia River to Skamania County. Transportation officials shut down Interstate 84, diverting people onto Washington’s state Highway 14.

With commercial trucks temporarily prohibited from traveling the winding Washington highway, companies such as Backwoods Brewing face shipping delays until roads reopen to trucks. The brewery, on track to sell 7,500 barrels this year, stands to lose a quarter of its monthly sales.

“It’s a pretty good chunk of change,” said Waters, 32.

Insitu, a drone maker based in Bingen, encouraged workers to leave early if needed or work from its Vancouver offices. Many normally either commute via the interstate or ride to work on a company-owned, internet-equipped charter bus.

“We have a lot of employees who live in the line of fire, so we’re certainly making it a priority for them to do whatever they need to do” to be safe, said Insitu spokeswoman Jennifer Beloy. “Many of them are being evacuated. We’re just offering the support we can, certainly, companywide.”

Fears for tourism

The fires could have lasting impacts for the tourism industry in a region that relies on its natural beauty.

Hikers who venture into the Gorge fuel recreation companies, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores. Port Commissioner Waters, who runs a wedding venue with his wife, said burned trees aren’t going to draw many nuptials, and maybe not many hikers for awhile.

“If the trees are burned down, it’s not going to look so good,” he said.

The Columbia River Gorge drew $400 million in tourism dollars in 2016. That’s up from $228 million in 2000, according to a report from Dean Runyan Associates on behalf of the Oregon Tourism Commission.

Economic development officials in Klickitat County said they don’t count tourism dollars specifically, but they track how tourism funds jobs. For example, 256 restaurant jobs and 93 winery jobs are owed to tourism dollars.

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Tourism is also a primary economic activity in Skamania County.

“Given closures, given the air quality, we’re expecting (visitation) will decrease this year,” said Casey Roeder, executive director of the Skamania Chamber of Commerce. “And many of our businesses, who are dependent on the 100 days of summer to get through the winter … it’s going to be a hard hit for them.”

It’s been a tough year already for many businesses, she said. Icy roads disrupted commerce last winter.

“Even when the snow was falling, I was able to schedule a truck to come in right before (roads) closed,” Waters said. “I knew the weather was coming. But in this instance, we didn’t plan for it. It hurts.”

Not every business was reeling Tuesday. Skamania Lodge, the largest employer in Skamania County, stayed open after being assured by fire officials it was safe. The 175-acre mountain lodge resort offers rooms, restaurants and 18 holes of golf just east of Bridge of the Gods.

General manager Ken Daugherty said it’s not nearly as smoky there due to strong east winds.

“It just looks like an overcast day at the lodge,” he said. “Everything’s in pretty good shape right now.”

Likewise, general goods stores along Highway 14 are seeing more business than usual.

Mike and Rose Zamani, who own Skamania General Store, saw a spike in business, although many of the customers were harried.

“They all have a certain feeling, not too happy about it,” said Mike Zamani, a native of Iran, who bought the store in 2009. “Upset, packing, they’re all panicked. They grab a few items and they go. Some people already left town, and others stand by.”

The Zamanis were awakened at 2 a.m. Tuesday to the knocks of firefighters telling them to evacuate their cabin. They opted to drive the 4 miles to their store and opened three hours early.

Firefighters were their main customers. Mike Zamani said they opened the cafe to them exclusively. He added that they still might have to evacuate the store, but they will wait and see.

“It might happen,” he said. “Fingers crossed. We don’t know.”

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Columbian staff writer