Even Businesses Miles Away From the Wildfires Are Suffering a Terrible Toll

The LNU Lightning Complex wildfire just outside Vacaville, California in August didn’t raze Nathan Reppert’s Los Reyes Restaurante Y Cantina, but nearby evacuations and billowing ash clouds have already cost the business about $40,000 in missed revenue, Reppert estimates.

Amid a historic wildfire season on the West Coast, with simultaneous blazes in Oregon, Washington, and California, plus a pandemic, Reppert says he’s just “drained.” The Creek Fire, which is raging about 200 miles south of Vacaville near the Sierra National Forest, has darkened the sun and made ash fall from the sky, making it almost impossible to offer outdoor seating, a key source of revenue for Reppert’s business. While it still does takeout and delivery, the Vacaville restaurant has been closed to indoor dining since July

“As a business owner, we need the revenue to continue to stay open,” says Reppert, who squeezed a few tables under the eaves of the restaurant to try and scrape together some cash, despite the warnings to stay inside amid worsening air quality. “As a human being, we don’t want to put our staff in a position where they’re even more stressed out.” 

He’s hardly alone. Hundreds of thousands of residents from California, Washington, and Oregon have been evacuated after fires engulfed millions of acres of land this summer. Yet residents and businesses as far away as Hawaii and Ohio are seeing the residual smoke and air quality degradation as a result of the serial conflagrations. California is battling about 16 active blazes, according to state’s website, and at least 35 people have died in the wildfires across the West Coast and in Washington State. Many of Oregon’s forests are also ablaze. The state of Oregon says it’s preparing for “a mass fatality incident,” which means injuries and death will likely outpace local ability to provide health care and other resources. Forty thousand people in Oregon have been asked to evacuate.

On Guard

He’s not evacuated yet, but Niko Mantele, CEO of Eugene, Oregon-based events company Stretch Shapes, says he is prepared to leave if need be. He’s currently about five miles from the eastern edge of Springfield, Oregon, where Level One–“be ready”–evacuation orders have been issued for the McKenzie Fire. Another, larger fire called Beachie Creek is raging east of Salem, Oregon, about 60 miles north of Eugene. About 70 miles to the south, the smallest of all three, the Archie Creek Fire, is burning. “We’re kind of surrounded,” says Mantele, whose company landed at No. 2,941 on the 2020 Inc. 5000, a list of the fastest-growing companies in America. The main impact right now is the air quality, he adds. 

Today, Eugene’s air quality is as bad as the scale measures, at “hazardous.” Mantele and his team, which now numbers 19, down from 40 prior to the pandemic, have worked hard to seal up “every crack” in the walls of their warehouse, even sealing up the space under all the doors. Mantele canceled production days last week and moved them to this week, assuming his team can make it in.

Of course, the wildfires and the ensuing smoke are just another blow in a heavy year. “It literally gets me in the gut when I think about everything that all of our people are going through,” says Mantele, who notes that he and employees have been casually sharing money for groceries or other needs while they’re fighting to keep the company going. He has kept 15 staffers on a one-day-a-week schedule, so they don’t lose their health insurance. The company pivoted to providing backdrops for virtual events, TikTok-ers, and YouTubers after in-person events largely tapered off in March. 

Reppert echoed Mantele’s exasperation. The restaurateur says he is trying to do what he can for employees whose homes have burned down, or who need to take in relatives whose homes have burned down, or when they have needed to go help friends evacuate their pets. Los Reyes donated 500 meals to local hospitals and has fed people whose homes have burned down for free. 

It’s unclear whether giving to one another will be enough to pull businesses through wildfire season–and the pandemic. When the area gets some rainfall, Reppert says, they might get a little relief. Until then: “We’re just surviving.”  

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