For 6 weeks last year, smoke filled most of southern Oregon’s air and for many days we had the worst air quality in the nation. We were told to stay indoors and we downloaded AQI (Air Quality Index) apps that sent us daily alerts and we watched wind shifts on websites (check out windy.com for a cool way to see live wind patterns and forecasts) while we sat indoors waiting for the “New Normal” to end. Many people left town for vacation or threatened to leave the area for good. The tourists we count on year after year, didn’t show up.
This new “Smoke Season” is emotionally dreadful and economically and physically harmful. The Oregon Shakespeare festival had to cancel 21 outdoor shows, so people didn’t come, which means restaurants were down (a couple in Ashland have shuttered since) and hotels were down. Even the Ashland Food Coop, was down 14% during the smoke season.
It’s beyond the scope of this publication to talk about the health issues and challenges we face because of smoke, but we should discuss the economic impact.
Last summer, The Klamathon Fire, near Yreka, burned in California and grew 10 miles per day toward the Oregon Border. In a few days it grew into Oregon and both homes and businesses were put on notice to evacuate. I know because both my home (My wife and I have a 30 acre ranch with lots of animals) and office, which is a mile from our home, were put in the “get set” to evacuate mode.
There are three modes of evacuation orders.
Get Ready means just that. Be aware and be prepared. Create a defensible space around your home and office and harden them.
Get Set means, a fire is on its way. Prepare to evacuate. Communicate your plans. Think through the evacuation so that if it happens, you are prepared. Pre-Pack.
Go means Go. Pack up the kids, pets and your ID, Meds and important papers into your car and GO!
Because of the animals needing to re-home quickly and the fire being 10 miles away and growing 10 miles a day, we started evacuating right away. Luckily for us, the next day, the wind shifted and the order was lifted, but for 24 hours we were busy moving animals off the farm and asking employees to figure out ways to do the work they do in the office, from home, if their home was safe. We also had equipment and files (both physical and electronic) that we had to figure out how to safely move away from danger. When it was over I realized that in my 30 years in business, and 28 years in Southern Oregon, this was the first time we faced an impending disaster and we were not really prepared.
Employees worry about their homes and you’re asking them to worry about work. We were very nervous. Fear is a powerful emotion.
This is the 3rd year in the row that Southern Oregon has been affected greatly, by the smoke. Many of us focus on the why. Who is to blame? Why is this happening? At coffee houses and board meetings, I heard countless “experts” explain how it’s because of bad forest management. I have seen photos of the region from 100 years ago and there were burned out forests, because fires are natural and the smoke that filled the air was there, but we didn’t live in the valleys were the smoke settled, yet. Maybe we slowed them down or put them out when we learned how to farm our forests, because it’s in our best interest that we protect our crops. Maybe we are all affected more now because we moved closer to or in some cases directly into the forests. Maybe we need to think about forests and forest fires as a health issue and not a territorial issue. I know when the fire marched toward us and moved from the state forests and entered into federal forests, the process of fighting the fire changed to not fighting and the people in charge of putting out the fire changed. I know that Jackson County commissioners and legislators are working hard to find solutions or to at least attack fires sooner and harder before they turn into a long term issue. The problems are many. Fires in Canada and California affected us. We don’t control those. We can’t fight those. But our air is effected. Smoke Season Impacts All of Us.
After I attended several meetings and felt like there was enough momentum to keep the political conversation about fire and smoke going, I returned my attention to the things I could control. I created a better evacuation plan for my employees and animals. I moved more of my business to the “cloud” and I made clear communication processes and policies for customers to know what was going on when something like that happened again.
I also started asking other businesses what they plan on doing to get though this “new normal” and several have come up with creative ideas. A large number are going to give away free masks for customers and employees. They are upgrading filters and changing them more often to create a clean air space. One is looking into offering home delivery of meals and groceries. At the Jackson County Expo, they opened their arena (closed it actually, but opened it for use) to football teams and other sport teams from area high schools to practice in. The Ashland Chamber of Commerce held a state wide smoke summit and created a site called SmokeWiseAshland.org (which has fantastic information for all, regardless of where you live).
After the smoke cleared we got busy and moved on and then the devastating Paradise fire reminded us that where there is smoke, there is fire and we need to all be ready to survive the next season. We had a good winter and hopefully we will have a long wet spring and we can keep those fires this summer to a minimum.
What are you doing to prepare your business to make it through this years smoke season? Please let us know by posting a comment below.