Wildfires in Oregon: Businesses and Jobs in Evacuation Zones

Over the past several days, we’ve watched in collective fear and sadness as more than 1 million acres of our beautiful state have gone up in flames. While in recent history most wildfires have been isolated to wilderness areas, the 16 fires burning across Oregon as of September 11, 2020 are destroying homes and businesses in several areas across the state. While the Research Division of the Employment Department cannot quantify or capture the immensity of these losses, we do have information about the businesses and jobs in current wildfire evacuation zones.

To get to such detailed levels of geography, we have to use information from our Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, and that information has a time lag. So the estimates used here reflect business establishments and jobs covered by Unemployment Insurance taxes as of this time last year, the third quarter of 2019.

Impact by County

The number of business establishments in wildfire evacuation zones near the height of evacuations, on September 11, 2020, totaled 21,350 across 13 different counties. These business establishments had 232,600 jobs. For context, that’s nearly the same size as the entire private health care industry (262,400 jobs) in Oregon statewide during the third quarter of 2019. The majority of these business establishments (60%) and their jobs (61%) are under Level 1 (or “Be Ready”) evacuation orders. Another 30 percent of the affected businesses (and 29% of their jobs) are in Level 2 (or “Be Set”) evacuation status.

One out of 10 business establishments and related employment in current wildfire evacuation zones are in Level 3 (“Go”) status.

Clackamas County has both the largest employment in Level 3 areas (10,000 jobs) and across all evacuation levels (166,000). Jackson County’s employment in current evacuation zones totals 37,300 jobs, with 4,000 of those in Level 3 areas. While Marion County has the third-highest total of jobs in all evacuation areas (13,100), Lincoln County has the third-highest Level 3 jobs count (2,100). 

Effects Vary by Sector

By industry sector, those with the largest job totals in all levels of evacuation zones – health care, retail trade, and leisure and hospitality – are among the state’s largest overall industries. If we look just at the most-impacted, Level 3 areas, the largest numbers of jobs come from natural resources and mining (3,700), which makes sense given the geography of wildfires. The level of impact is notable though: while natural resources and mining made up 4 percent of all jobs in the third quarter of 2019, the industry accounts for one out of five (18%) of Level 3 evacuation area jobs. Construction is also disproportionately affected, with 13 percent of Level 3 area jobs, compared with 8 percent of all jobs.

Underestimated Impacts

We know these estimates of business establishments and jobs disrupted by wildfires understate the overall impact on Oregon. Some displaced Oregonians living within the evacuation zones hold jobs elsewhere. Using the September 11, 2020 evacuation boundaries in the U.S. Census Bureau’s OnTheMap tool, we find 250,200 primary jobs held by workers living in all evacuation zones. Unfortunately this too is an undercount, as the most recent data in OnTheMap date back to 2017.

In addition, many businesses and households outside of evacuation zones in Oregon are impacted by the fires. Several consecutive days of hazardous air quality conditions have led to temporary business reductions or closures. Ventilation concerns due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic can be at odds with keeping unhealthy air outside, and some businesses utilizing more outdoor space to offset indoor capacity limitations now also face the inability to use outdoor areas. The personal and economic disruption caused by these disasters cannot be fully measured.

By Gail Krumenauer
State Employment Economist
Oregon Employment Department

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