Stores and restaurants report a significant drop in sales.
The sidewalks in downtown Hood River were quiet this past Saturday morning. The day-trippers and vacationers who usually pack café tables and storefronts are staying away.
The reason for their absence is visible in the smoky haze hanging in the air. It comes from the Eagle Creek Fire, the highest priority fire in the nation, still blazing just 30 miles to the west.
The fire has shut down Interstate 84 between Troutdale and Hood River, and poor air quality warnings are keeping people inside. With visitors staying away, local businesses are feeling the pinch.
Aaron Baumhackl, co-owner of Solstice Wood Fire Café and Bar, said his restaurant typically sees a 30% drop in business after Labor Day Weekend. This past week that decline was 60%.
“I had to cut hours drastically this week and lay people off,” he said.
While he anticipated having to thin his staff at the end of summer, Baumhackl said this dip came six to eight weeks early.
“It hurts every year to lay people off. When it is not expected like this is it harder.”
Muir Cohen, co-owner of Waucoma Bookstore, did not see the usual crowd of out-of-towners browsing the shelves this past week and noted a significant drop in sales.
“It feels more like the slowdown we see in January and February,” Cohen said.
With freight detouring around Mount Hood to reach the town, the store is running behind on book orders, but Cohen said most customers have been understanding. The fire also forced the store to cancel a book-signing event on Friday evening.
Down along the river at the Hood River Event site, the grassy lawn and sandy beach were also empty of the usual weekend crowds of windsurfers, kiteboarders and spectators.
Monica Capone, manager of Big Winds stand up paddleboard tent at the Event Site, said the shop decided to close on Sunday of Labor Day Weekend because of concerns about air quality. The closure happened during the shop’s annual rental fleet sale.
“The fire put a halt to that,” Capone said. “It was definitely not the Labor Day Weekend we were used to.”
The Eagle Creek fire erupted on Saturday, September 2. It has since merged with the nearby Indian Creek Fire and now covers more than 33,000 acres.
As of Saturday afternoon, the fire was 7% contained. Shifting winds and steep terrain have made fire-fighting conditions difficult. Nearly 1,000 people are fighting the fire and 140 people have been evacuated from their homes.
On Friday, September 8, Hood River residents on the west side of town were alerted for possible evacuation and some residents in Cascade Locks were told to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Fire managers do not expect to have the fire contained until the end of September.
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Hood River has become an increasingly popular vacation destination in recent years.
Data from research firm Dean Runyon Associates shows a year-over-year increase in visitor spending in Hood River County for seven consecutive years reaching $98 million in 2016. Hood River County saw 970,000 hotel room night bookings in 2016, a 5 percent increase over 2015.
In years past, Labor Day Weekend marked the end of the season in Hood River.
But a growth in shoulder season travelers has lately kept the town’s economy humming through the fall and into the winter ski season. Business owners now expect those shoulder season dollars, which makes the current situation particularly hard.
“We have not done an official survey of businesses yet on how much they have been affected by the fire. We will do so after the fire has become more contained, but right now it’s not our area of focus; the safety of our community is,” said Hood River County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Mike Glover.
“One silver lining is that this fire has happened after school has resumed, when business always slows down a bit. So the affect is not quite as severe as it would have been over the summer.”
The Oregon Small Business Development Center Network this week announced efforts to help small businesses affected by wildfires. The network is offering free advising sessions to small businesses to address issues like destruction of property, supply chain interruption and cash flow problems and to help them plan for the future.
While Interstate 84 remains closed and fire fighting efforts continue, Hood River businesses owners can only bide their time.
“We are in a wait-and-see mode,” Cohen said. “We’re hoping the holidays will be big.”
Baumhackl said there is more at stake than his own bottom line.
“When our business drops, it impacts our staff, farmers and purveyors — really the local economy.”
Eileen Garvin is a writer and editor in Hood River.