Wildfires Impact on September Employment Figures

by Nick Beleiciks

October 26, 2017

September’s wildfires didn’t seem to have a noticeable impact on the statewide jobs and unemployment rate report. The fires did have a noticeable impact the local job reports in the Columbia Gorge, Central Oregon, and Southern Oregon. Leisure and hospitality businesses in these areas cut a combined 600 more jobs than they usually do in September. This sector includes restaurants, hotels, and other tourism related businesses. Since the wildfires and smoke coincided with the end of the tourism season, it is not possible to fully tell which jobs were lost due to the unusual wildfires and smoke, and which jobs were cut as the usual tourism season ended.

The wildfires had no effect on unemployment rates in September. In order to be counted as unemployed in the statistics, an individual must not have a job during the reference week (the week of the month containing the 12th, which was September 10-16, 2017), but were available for a job and were making active efforts to find one. Individuals that have jobs but were temporarily absent from their workplace due to wildfires would be considered employed, as would workers whose normal work hours were reduced during the week.

Seasonal wildland firefighter jobs are often outside the scope of the monthly job growth figures. Figures for the increase in wildland firefighter jobs will be available in about three months.

Employment Department regional economists in Central Oregon, the Columbia Gorge, the Portland area, South Coast, and Southern Oregon provided the following information about wildfire employment impacts in their areas.

Central Oregon roughly 200 leisure and hospitality jobs
Damon Runberg, damon.m.runberg@oregon.gov, (541) 706-0779

Wildfires that inundated Central Oregon with smoke for much of September seem to have made a noticeable impact on the local employment situation. Deschutes County’s leisure and hospitality sector, which includes hotels, restaurants, and recreation, posted an unusually high loss of jobs in September. As the summer tourism season comes to an end it is normal for the leisure sector to decline by around 6 percent from August. This year the sector declined by closer to 8.5 percent from August (-1,150 jobs).

These employment impacts may understate the real impact of the wildfire smoke on the local tourism economy. Preliminary results from Bend’s transient room tax collections show a notable dip of around 5 percent in hotel room visits for the first half of September compared with the same time last year. This was a bit of an anomaly as visitation for much of the summer months was largely higher than last year. The drop in hotel visitors was likely compounded across the region with fewer people visiting restaurants, renting bikes, hiring a guide service, or playing golf.

The negative employment impacts seem to be isolated to the leisure sector as the rest of private sector saw a decline of less than 1 percent from August, a fairly typical pattern that we’ve seen over the past five years.

Columbia Gorge roughly 230 leisure and hospitality jobs and 70 retail jobs
Dallas Fridley, dallas.w.fridley@oregon.gov, (541) 645-0005

Hood River County cut 100 jobs in leisure and hospitality, falling to 2,200 in September. Retail trade also landed in the minus column, cutting 70 jobs to total 1,450.

In 2016, Cascade Locks had about 260 private industry jobs, including 36 in retail trade and about 100 in accommodation and food services… any major employment impacts from the September wildfire would be limited to that range.

In Wasco County, retail trade held its own with 1,790 jobs in September. Leisure and hospitality pulled back, cutting 90 jobs to total 1,440. Indian Tribal government, which includes the Warm Spring’s Tribes’ Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, fell by 40 jobs in September to total 140; compared with its year-ago level, tribal government has lost 80 jobs.

Portland Area no noticeable impact on jobs
Amy Vander Vliet, amy.s.vandervliet@oregon.gov, (971) 804-2099

The Columbia Gorge fires had little impact on employment in the Portland metro area. Although the region experienced it second consecutive month of job losses in September, declines were broad-based geographically and across most major industries. In addition, the communities most affected by the fires are small relative to the rest of the metro area. While they undoubtedly suffered job losses, the declines would be masked by trends elsewhere in the metro area.

South Coast roughly 10 jobs in leisure and hospitality
Annette Shelton-Tiderman, annette.i.shelton-tiderman@oregon.gov, (541) 252-2047

The early beginnings of the Chetco Bar Fire can be traced back to a half-acre blaze in Oregon’s Kalmiopsis Wilderness in early July. It took nearly a month for the remote fire to explode into one of the nation’s most dangerous wildfires. In mid-August the hot, dry winds – the “Chetco Effect,” quickly took the fire from roughly 4,800 acres to nearly 98,000 acres in the space of two weeks. All told, by late September this Curry County fire had torched an excess of 190,000 acres. As the fire raged and the skies turned orange, concerns extended from forest-related and residential losses to possible impacts on local tourism and employment.

It should be noted, employment estimates are derived from a local sample that is relatively small, thus making it difficult to discern typical seasonal shifts from possible impacts from the Chetco Fire. Additionally, comments have been made that the firefighters successfully contained the fire lines nearest Curry communities such that businesses and in-town residential areas were kept out of harm’s way.

The August employment figures showed an increase of 40 jobs in leisure and hospitality. This mid-summer uptick was in keeping with this industry’s typical summer trend; in the last 17 years, only 2010 saw an employment decline between July and August (0.8%).

Preliminary September employment figures show a decline of 70 jobs in leisure and hospitality (-5.0%, over the month). Since 2001, employment has always dropped between August and September – mostly after the Labor Day weekend. The 17-year average early fall decrease is 4.5 percent (-58 jobs). In the last five years, the average early fall loss has been 60 jobs (-4.6%). Although it is possible that this year’s modest decline in employment may reflect fire and smoke-related impacts on Curry County’s leisure and hospitality industry, the sample size used for the estimates is too small to reach a definitive conclusion at this time. 

Southern Oregon roughly 100 jobs in leisure and hospitality
Guy Tauer, guy.r.tauer@oregon.gov, (541) 816-8396

The wildfires and smoke-filled skies that plagued the region for many weeks likely took a toll on tourism spending and related employment. In Jackson County in many years, August is the yearly peak employment month for leisure and hospitality. This year, that peak occurred in July. In August the largest decline of all industries occurred in leisure and hospitality, down by 125 jobs. September continued the seasonally expected reductions in leisure and hospitality employment, but the reduction totaling 300 jobs was more than the typical decline for that month of about -100 to -200 jobs going back to 2001. While the true impacts won’t be tallied until revised data are available, these preliminary estimates show a palpable decrease in summer tourism-related activity and employment.

In Josephine County, total payroll employment fell by 100 jobs in August, mostly due to a decline of 110 jobs in leisure and hospitality. Those declines continued in September with another 80 jobs lost in leisure and hospitality. These preliminary estimates don’t show a direct impact to employment trends in this tourism-dependent industry, as they are in line with what would be expected for the August-September period. These estimates, produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, are derived from model-based estimates that only include a fraction of local businesses in the sample. The true toll will be much easier to assess once more complete data from employer’s payroll tax records become available in a few months. Impacts from the wildfires likely slowed tourism, travel and related employment in Josephine County. On the other hand, employment in forestry support activities, which includes private firefighting firms, likely added more jobs in July-September in the Rogue Valley, but are out of the CES industry survey scope.

Anecdotal published reports do show a revenue and financial impact of the smoke and wildfires on the tourism industry. An article published in the October 13 Ashland Daily Tidings states, “At its year-end company call, Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced that, mainly because of lost revenues from smoky air, it will trim seven positions from the acting company and five from non-acting posts in development, artistic and information technology areas from its 2018 budget. The cutbacks take effect immediately, and the 2018 OSF fiscal year starts Nov. 1.The festival lost about $400,000 it gave out in refunds for outdoor performances canceled during the long smoke siege in August and September, said spokesman Eddie Wallace, following a gathering of 500 festival staff in the Bowmer Theatre. Taking that hit into account, OSF expects this year’s budget to end up with a deficit of about $300,000.”

Published reports from the September 7 Grants Pass Daily Courier offer an additional example of the wildfire impact on one seasonal business. “Hellgate trips will end after today because of smoke and lowering river levels,” said General Manager Travis Hamlyn on Wednesday.
Hamlyn said Hellgate would have operated through the coming weekend had it not been for the smoke, which put a 50 percent dent in the predicted Labor Day weekend payload.

"It's been a tough last few weeks for sure," Hamlyn said. "We were sold out before we started eliminating trips. We hoped each day we might have some more wind to clear it out. We're just not seeing it."

More About Unemployment Statistics
Tracy Morrissette, tracy.a.morrissette@oregon.gov, (503) 947-1273

Wildfires in Oregon had no discernable effect on unemployment rates in September, at both the statewide and county level. Labor force and unemployment rate data are estimates of the activity of individuals in households, and therefore potentially reflect the effects of a wildfire on the labor force activity of a population in an area.
The labor force response to a wildfire would have to be large and uniform in direction relative to the size of the population in an area to show a clear effect in the data. Depending on the situation, the labor force activity of individuals impacted by wildfires may show up in different ways in the data. An individual is unemployed if they do not have a job during the reference week (the week of the month containing the 12th), but were available for a job and were making active efforts to find one. Individuals separated from a job on temporary layoff are counted as unemployed. Individuals that have jobs but are temporarily absent from their workplace during the reference week are counted as employed, regardless of whether or not they are paid. Individuals whose normal work hours were reduced during the week are counted as employed. An individual is not in the labor force if they are neither employed nor unemployed. 

Given there are a number of potential responses by individuals and employers to a wildfire or change in air quality, that do not necessarily move in one direction and are mixed in with the overall labor market activity in an area, it is difficult to single out the effects of a specific event on unemployment statistics unless the impact is large in the aggregate relative to the population of the area.


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