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Fires leave economic wounds

BY SUSAN KIM | SEQUOIA, CA | July 23, 2002

"People are staying away in droves."

—Peter Van Hook

Western wildfires are leaving economic wounds that will linger long after burned homes have been rebuilt, said disaster response leaders.

Flagging tourism and a drought-stricken agricultural industry are combining to bring hardship that’s not going away fast.

Loss of tourism is the “single biggest mid-term recovery issue when it comes to the wildfires,” said Peter Van Hook, a disaster response and recovery liaison with the Church World Service (CWS) emergency response program.

California will likely face a tourism fallout, said forestry officials as a 50,000-acre fire Thursday continued to scorch sections of Sequoia National Park, forcing 1,000 campers and residents to flee.

Authorities arrested a woman for unlawfully starting a campfire that sparked the large blaze. Officials said they believed she started the fire accidentally.

The damage to Sequoia National Park is already proving costly to the tourism industry. Those whose jobs depend on the thousands of visitors who flock to the national forest annually could be in for economic hardship, said Matt Mathes, regional press officer for the U.S. Forest Service in California.

The fire Thursday was burning near the Giant Sequoia National Monument, which preserves about half of the 70 groves of giant sequoias. “It’s devastating,” said Mathes.

It was 5 percent contained with temperatures expected to be in the triple digits Thursday as more than 1,000 firefighters worked on the scene. Some 200 homes were threatened.

The blaze was not threatening the General Sherman tree, which many forest experts tout as the world’s largest living thing based on volume.

In Show Low –- the resort town firefighters managed to save from the largest fire in Arizona’s history –- tourists had a 50 percent cancellation rate over July 4 weekend. “The town was open, and recreational activities were not affected.”

But people didn’t come –- and on a weekend when the town was depending on a large infusion of cash.

Colorado communities such as Durango with tourism-based economies are seeing similar effects. “People are staying away in droves,” said Van Hook.

Side-by-side with tourism, the western agriculture industry is facing economic devastation as wildfires and a prolonged drought continue to rake the region.

A large fire in Oregon –- a 94,000-acre blaze that was threatened 65 homes earlier this week –- was 40 percent contained late Wednesday. That fire has affected quite a few farms, said Ken Murphy, spokesperson for Oregon emergency management. “It is burning fence lines and even crops.”

Farmers in several other western and Midwest states have also watched crops wither and livestock die because there is not enough water.

A hay shortage is also making it hard for farmers to feed their livestock. In western Nebraska, the Orphan Grain Train, a relief group that has worked across the globe, has been appointed by the state of Nebraska to organize an exchange of hay donations between farmers and ranchers.

The situation for agricultural and livestock producers in New Mexico is similar, said Scotty Abbott, conservation and emergency programs specialist at the New Mexico Farm Service Agency office.

“There is no feed for the livestock. Water is short. Producers are having to haul water,” he said. “And the water shortage is a big issue for crop producers,” he added, with alfalfa and chilies a mainstay for crops in the state.

“Livestock producers are in some cases liquidating entire herds, which could have major tax and market implications,” added Billy Dietson, director of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU) Cooperative Extension Service.

New Mexico’s largest agricultural industry is cattle and calves, with cash receipts totaling more than $900 million.

In Rio Arriba County, which borders fire-stricken Colorado, cattle farmers are facing a severe hay shortage. “There’s no hay growing whatsoever to feed cattle,” said Tony Valdez from the county’s extension office. “Ranchers are buying hay and hauling water to livestock, which is not normal for this higher country. Wildlife is suffering from the lack of forage and water.”

NMSU has been offering financial seminars for farmers in that state. “We’re dealing with two different aspects of drought: lack of rainfall, which affects livestock producers, dryland farmers, and home gardeners; and lack of snowmelt to recharge our reservoirs and the underground aquifers that supply our drinking water,” said Craig Runyon, who coordinates the university’s Water Task Force and serves on a statewide Drought Task Force. “Even if it rains during our monsoon season this summer, the drought will not be over.”

The New Mexico Department of agriculture is coordinating hay donations in that state.

For many, the drought is a bigger potential disaster than the fires. Drought conditions exist in many parts of the country, with deeper droughts from the Cascade mountain range in the west to the Rocky Mountains, and from the southern boundaries of Montana to the Mexican border.

“Many states are in the fourth year of a drought,” said Van Hook. “Economies in rural communities can not sustain themselves through a four-year drought. There’s no water. It’s going to take a decade of greater-than-average rains to replenish the aquifers.

“And we’re looking at fires all year. I think we’ve lost a couple thousand homes. But we haven’t lost entire towns and nobody died. I have no confidence we’ll be able to say that in September.”

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