Gov. Kate Brown says part of the process of preventing more summers of smoke in Southern Oregon is to make sure the rest of the state knows just how many people were affected and for how long.
“It’s critically important that there be some better cross-fertilization,” Brown told a room of regional leaders in tourism, firefighting, wine and theater Thursday morning in Ashland.
“I don’t think in Portland — we had some weeks of impact during the Eagle Creek fire, but I don’t think there’s a clear sense of how terribly impacted Southern Oregon was this fire season.”
The discussion brought together state-level officials, including state Sen. Alan DeBoer and Travel Oregon CEO Todd Davidson, and regional leaders from Klamath, Jackson and Josephine counties, who sketched out the breadth of the financial and health impacts of smoke in their spheres of influence.
Cynthia Rider, executive director of OSF, said while she thought this season’s lineup was one of the best she had ever seen, the company lost almost $2 million in canceled or moved performances. Earlier this week, the festival announced it had laid off 16 employees as a direct result of the smoke.
Similar losses echoed across the room: Crater Lake saw 17 percent, 22 percent and 14 percent lower visitation than 2017 in August, July and June, respectively, and 30 percent losses among concessionaires. Ross Allen, owner of 2Hawk Vineyard near Medford and president of Rogue Valley Vintners, said tasting room visits at wineries represented by Rogue Valley Vintners were down by 30 percent, resulting in a $1 million loss (corrected from previous version).
Eli Matthews, senior vice president of Travel Medford, called the possibility of recurring and lingering summertime smoke “catastrophic, to say the least.”
“What we’re really looking for is that practical application,” he said. “And when we’ve really looked at it, what it really comes down to is policy.”
Brown and the attendees tossed around what’s becoming a familiar inventory of options to prevent the kinds of hot, large and fast wildfires that kept smoke in Southern Oregon skies for weeks. Increased forest thinning operations. More prescribed burns during cooler months.
Salvage logging after fires, however, didn’t feature heavily in the conversation.
Brown made clear the actions she favored and those she wasn’t for at all.
“My understanding is that Sen. (Jeff) Merkley’s proposal really entails a higher level of thinning, versus clear-cutting,” she said. “I do not believe that clear-cutting is the answer. I want to make that very, very clear. And frankly, I just don’t think, whether it’s via lawsuits or protests from Oregonians, that it is a reasonable and rational response.”
Brown said she thinks after last year’s Eagle Creek fire in the Columbia Gorge, that when it comes to increasing prescribed burns, “Portlanders are much more ready and willing to have that conversation.”
The governor also used her visit to announce two grants dedicated to recovery and research after this summer.
She first announced that Business Oregon has conditionally awarded a $51,000 grant via the Local Economic Opportunity Fund to research how smoke has affected travel and perceptions of Southern Oregon tourism. It’s intended to help businesses make informed decisions about investments, marketing and strategy.
And from the Governor’s Strategic Reserve Fund, Brown awarded the Oregon Shakespeare Festival $70,000 to assist with installation of new air filtration and HVAC systems in its indoor theaters.
“I just want you to encourage you to reach out to your families and friends who live in the other parts of the state and let them know what an incredibly terrifying and horrible fire season it was and that they need to be thinking about Southern Oregon,” she said. “We need to make sure that Oregonians want to come to Southern Oregon and help you all recover and spend some of their hard-earned dollars here.”
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.