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Wildfires snuff out business

Forest fire

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Tess Vigeland: Here in the west we've been warned that this could be one of the worst fire seasons ever. Residents of Lake Tahoe already suffered. And now 5 percent of the state of Idaho is on fire.

In addition to the damage to property and wildlife, smoke and flames have forced the Forest Service to close two popular stretches of the Salmon River. And that leaves quite a few businesses up a creek. Elizabeth Wynne Johnson of Northwest News Network reports the economic ripple effect is just getting started.


Elizabeth Wynne Johnson: Fire crews call it a "blow up." Last week, in the midst of Idaho's dozen or so active wildfires, two separate blazes converged into one, and headed straight for a group of 14 tourists and five guides floating down the Salmon — the part nicknamed "River of No Return."

Alison Steen: And that evening, it made a huge run up river. Covered in an hour what they expected it to do over four days.

Alison Steen is an owner of Yellow Jacket River Guides in the central Idaho town of Salmon, near the Montana border. Once she knew her people were safe, a different sort of worry set in.

Steen: I was saying to myself on the day that our guests came out, "Sp this will be the most expensive day in the history of our business."

When your livelihood relies on wilderness access, acts of God come with the territory. Still, Idaho's river-dependant businesses have been scorched by this year's wildfire season.

At roughly $20,000 a pop, canceling a rafting trip is a big deal. There are 35 outfitters who work this section of the Salmon. At times like this, they stay in close touch with Forest Service managers.

Mason Kiebert: Hi, this is Mason Kiebert with K-Bear River Adventures.

Kiebert's one of those outfitters. When he makes this call to check the status of the river, he's hoping for business as usual.

Kiebert: OK. Thank you very much. Bye-bye. Yeah, it's, they officially closed it. So that changes everything. What we're looking at now is we're gonna have a bunch of outfitters that are gonna be heavily impacted by this.

For the white-water faithful, Idaho's Salmon River is like Mecca. Closing it affects scores of businesses that rely on their yearly pilgrimages. The state's industry association says rafting, fishing and hunting contribute some $50 million annually to the rural economy in Idaho.

When wildfires shut down the river for three weeks in 2000, it cost the industry several million dollars. It's too soon to tally the impact for this year.

Alison Steen of Yellow Jacket River Guides says her business will make it. In cases of natural disaster, the company offers rainchecks, but not refunds.

Steen: And that for us is kind of the difference between a really huge hit — when something like this happens — and something we can survive.

There is a silver lining to the clouds of smoke hanging over the Salmon River. Rafters who made it through the steep-walled canyon before the closure got a rare glimpse of nature's crucible in action. Many have already booked future trips to see how the forest bounces back.

In Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson for Marketplace.

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