Payroll Employment for Businesses Destroyed in Almeda Fire

by Guy Tauer

October 15, 2020

Following the historically terrible fires during the season that has yet to be declared over in Southern Oregon, we published an analysis of employment and payroll within evacuation zones during the fires. That look at employment within Oregon’s fire evacuation zones can be found here.

Within the level 3 evacuation zone in Jackson County, the Almeda fire burned though the core business route of Hwy. 99 From the edge of Ashland to the outskirts of Medford. In some spots the wind-whipped fire devastated all businesses on both the east and west sides of the highway, at other times hopscotching its way south, indiscriminately taking out some businesses while sparing others seemingly without explanation. For the ground level look, you can search any property within the fire perimeter now and see what is there now.

The Bear Creek Greenway trail is now open between Medford and Ashland, for a close-up view that pierces through the trail of ash and embers that meanders along the floor of the Bear Creek Valley. The sight of a tree that has probably stood 150 or 200 years adjacent to the path but now sheared at the base due to fire damage and threat of falling was testament to the fact that this fire was historic in terms of both frequency and intensity.

Using a few sources such as a Google map showing the fire outline and a published list businesses lost in the fire that appeared on a local news website, there are about 130 businesses that have been lost due to the fire. More will be incorporated as a city business license list is added to these other sources. These lists include both self-employed and sole proprietors, those businesses who don’t have any paid employees, as well as businesses with “covered” employment (jobs covered by unemployment insurance). Within those 130 or more total businesses that were destroyed or heavily damaged in the fire, we have payroll employment and wage data for 63 of those businesses that were in operation during the third quarter of 2019. While we don’t know of course how many workers those businesses had during the third quarter of 2020 when the fire struck, looking back at last year’s figures can give us a sense of the likely overall payroll employment impact.

During the summer quarter of 2019, there were about 510 payroll jobs among the 63 establishments that were lost in the fire. These businesses had $4,177,786 in total payroll, with an average annual wage per job of $32,703. All of the jobs lost were in the private sector. Not included in the total was the Southern Oregon Education Service District campus, as it is unclear how many of those jobs were dependent on that location or could be done remotely or at other locations. That’s also important to note for other businesses – we don’t know how many jobs within businesses that were lost could be relocated to their other business operations, temporary locations, or are simply gone until we see which businesses are rebuilt or relocated. The 510 payroll jobs represented 0.6 percent of Jackson County’s total payroll employment and 0.4 percent of total payroll during the summer of 2019.

We did see a spike in weekly initial unemployment insurance claims from the week ending September 19, 2020, increasing to 401 claims from 185 claims filed the week ending September 5, 2020. But not only was the Almeda fire in Southern Jackson County raging, the town of Butte Falls was under a level 3 evacuation for a longer duration as a result of the South Obenchain fire, and Shady Cove was also threatened for a spell.

Similar evacuations, smoke, and fires raged in the forest, edging close to the towns of O’Brien, Holland, and Takilma, and to a lesser degree Cave Junction. To give perspective, the perimeter of that fire runs more than 250 miles from Northern California into Southern Oregon in Josephine County. Josephine County also saw an uptick in initial unemployment insurance claims during the worst weeks of the fires, but did not experience nearly the residential or business destruction that Jackson County saw.

Looking at the mix of jobs by industry affected by the Almeda Fire, we see a similar distribution of jobs as the overall economy, with leisure and hospitality, retail trade, and health care and social assistance accounting for most jobs. There is not very much industry detail available due to confidentiality.
The shock of it all is beginning to settle in, as played out in the night terrors last week that kept one 4th grader up most of the night and then out of their online class at the local elementary school next day. They are one of the luckier ones – the family is moving into a new home soon; the move will be fast as all they have are a few changes of clothes. But many others are still in hotels, staying in trailers and RV’s that could be found vacant, or with benevolent friends and family. My and our collective hearts are with all of those who are affected.

For all of these businesses, sole proprietors, and self-employed workers, a few resources are being added to the new Rogue business website under the “Wildfire Resources Available” banner:

Jackson County has launched a website for official wildfire recovery information: It is aimed at those affected by the Almeda and Obenchain fires and brings together information from multiple organizations involved in the rebuilding effort.

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