COVID and fires: The pandemic has had long-term effects to local businesses, while others seem to be bracing for what may be an extended fire season
During the height of the Caldor Fire, the Truckee/Tahoe area experienced a dramatic shift in tourism due to smoke, forest closures, and the necessity of a clear exit for evacuees coming from South Lake.
These events had adverse effects for many tourist industries that had also been hit hard by the pandemic, and right before “slow season,” when tourism takes a downward trend after it spikes in the summertime.
In late August, as well as early September, many businesses that are driven by tourism, the outdoor industry in particular, were experiencing high volume cancellations. Some businesses had even paused their operations as the entire area braced themselves for the Caldor Fire.
Many of these businesses were also forced to shut down at the start of the pandemic. For those that were able to recover, the fires had added another obstacle to overcome.
Mike Crow, owner of North Lake Tahoe Boat Rentals, had lost $150,000 in revenue due to both cancellations and necessary pausing of operations due to the Caldor Fire. Crow stated that there are only about 90 days of prime time for his business to bring in revenue, and 30% of that was now lost, causing his business to break even for the summer.
“We don’t wanna be inviting people for tourism when everybody else is leaving their houses,” said Crow, “and my employees live here, so I also have to try to give them a living wage while we’re closed.”
Crow also looked for any kind of potential compensation for having to close his business due to the fires, but had only found funding for damaged structures. “Nothing to do with lost wages or lost revenue,” he said.
Although Crow believes that the pandemic has actually resulted in an uptick in tourism, it has also affected his businesses in the amount of cleaning that has now become apart of regular duties.
“Employees have to go earlier and stay later to keep the boats as clean as possible,” he said. “But if we have to hit every nook and cranny now multiple times to try to make sure everything is killed, it costs that much more in labor and products.”
Crow is worried that the pause in tourism may become a regular occurrence in the summer months for years to come.
“Changing going forward, we’re going to try to operate a little bit slimmer — which I don’t want to do,” he said. “But having to support more employees only puts a bigger strain on my business. So if we can operate on a little bit thinner payroll, we’re gonna have to because you never know what’s going to happen come smoke season.”
‘A LOT OF EXTRA TIME’
Natalie Tseko, small business owner of Nat’s All That, nearly lost her business this past year to the pandemic. Tseko offers services such as home staging, cleaning, and childcare — but over half of her business caters to vacationers in the Tahoe area.
One of the biggest hits to Tseko’s business was in hospitality. She had previously cleaned and managed 14 Airbnbs, but only managed to keep business with one of them, mostly due to newly enforced cleaning procedures.
“The cleaning was going to take a lot of extra time, and I think a lot of the owners just didn’t want to deal with the new standards.”
Tseko said that half of her revenue was slashed over the past year and that her staff had gone from a total of 13 people to just four, due to both a lack of work and also the increase in the cost of living. As a result, some of her staff have moved to more affordable areas in different states. During the Caldor Fire, Tseko also received several cancellations as parents did not want their children inhaling smoke from the fire.
Alpenglow Expeditions, a local mountain guiding service that operates in Olympic Valley, also had significant impacts to its operations during the late summer months. It had around 50 cancellations both due to shutdowns and also tourists who canceled their trips because of hazardous smoke conditions.
The agency had shut down for a week and was also unable to continue its rock guiding for the entirety of the National Forest closure, according to Alpenglow Expeditions California Programs Manager Sara Sheltz.
Despite this, Alpenglow Expeditions still paid its salaried guides during the shutdown, and paid all guides for half of their workdays when cancellations happened last minute — despite the cost to the business, said Sheltz. After heavy smoke in 2020, Alpenglow realized that it would need to prepare for more potential fire seasons in the future and now recommends canceling at an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 300 due to health hazards, unless both the guide and the clients are willing to accept the health risks.
“The smoke puts the guides in a bad position because it can be hazardous to their health, but they also rely on the work.” said Sheltz.
Blake Hunter, local fly fishing guide and server at FiftyFifty Brewing, is happy to be working after the pandemic shutdowns.
“I can’t say I enjoy seeing our small towns become overwhelmed by the dramatic increase in population change and tourist travel, but we did need it this year to help us move forward,” he said. “The mass exodus that occurred from the Caldor Fire was like nothing I’ve ever seen in our area.
“We used to regularly see a slow season, but this fire gave us that on a whole different level,” he added. “It was extremely depressing and nerve wracking watching our fellow South Lake locals deal with such unprecedented times. The scene around here was apocalyptic at times with crazy high AQI levels. Restaurants and local businesses were dead and rightfully so.“
Hunter lost 14 fly fishing guide trips, but he said that most are planning on coming back another time when the AQI levels are lower. He added that although this was a loss for his business, the safety of those evacuating South Lake were of utmost importance.
“It’s a bummer, but there was so much more to be concerned about during that time, including doing whatever you could for the evacuees.” said Hunter.
Elizabeth White is a staff writer with the Sierra Sun. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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