Washington Business Winter 2016 | Page 38

business backgrounder | economy After the Fire Fighting back in a fire-prone region. Christine Pratt Eastern Washington communities hit hard by wildfire are pulling together to rebuild their homes, their businesses and their lives. WENATCHEE — Big wildfires happen every summer in Eastern Washington, a high-desert region carved out of rock by the ice age floods, bestowed with rivers and lakes and blanketed with timber, desert scrub and fertile crop lands. — Jon Wyss, volunteer chairman, Okanogan County During the dry, summer months an Independence Long Term Recovery Group and government Day sparkler dropped from a child’s hand can be as affairs analyst for Gebbers Farms effective as a bolt of lightning at setting hilly expanses of cheat grass and bitterbrush ablaze. The people here are used to that. But local experts say the economic impacts of the past summer’s deadly flames could be felt for decades in hardesthit Okanogan County, as displaced families move out, property values decline, lumber yields diminish from blackened timberlands and cattle herds are reduced until rangeland recovers for grazing. “These fires have been the greatest challenge of my life, but also the most rewarding,” says Jon Wyss, volunteer chairman of the Okanogan County Long Term Recovery Group. His day job is serving as government affairs analyst for the region’s largest fruit grower and cattle rancher, Gebbers Farms. “People are hurting in the face of disaster. We are the hope for people to get back on at a glance their feet. We have to be there for them.” The group formed last year to shepherd fundraising and recovery efforts following Wildfires set historic records of Okanogan County’s 2014 Carlton Complex fires, which destroyed 312 homes and destruction this past, drought-parched blackened 257,000 acres, making it the largest in state history. Until this year. summer. They burned more than This time around, flames burned nearly 523,000 acres in Okanogan County and killed 1 million acres across the state, almost three U.S. Forest Service firefighters. all of it — some 893,000 acres worth The recovery group is now partnering in its relief efforts with the other wildfire— east of the Cascade Mountains. stricken counties of Chelan, Stevens, Ferry, and Pend Oreille, as well as the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. The Okanogan County Long Term This year, damage from structure loss, alone, is estimated at $11 million, Wyss said. Recovery Group is helping the region The dollar value of loss in other key sectors is still being refined. Here’s a rundown: “People are hurting in the face of disaster. We are the hope for people to get back on their feet. We have to be there for them.” recover from a pair of fire seasons that locals say could leave an impact lasting for decades. Local families and businesses are still struggling and may be for years to come, but experts say these years of devastating wildfire will forge a more fire-smart and fire-resistant region, better prepared for future disaster. 38 association of washington business property tax Estimates show that Okanogan County could lose 3.8 percent of its property value, Wyss says. That loss could amount to an approximately 18-percent reduction in revenues for tax-reliant districts, including schools and local water and sewer districts — entities that are already hurting. Some 512 school structures have been lost over the past two fire seasons, he says. Reduced property tax revenues will put pressure on the stricken counties’ public utility districts and power cooperatives that lost miles of powerlines, poles and fiberoptic cable. Federal and state emergency funding won’t cover the entire loss.