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How small businesses are affected by wildfires

Andy Uhler Oct 8, 2015

How small businesses are affected by wildfires

Andy Uhler Oct 8, 2015

Peak fire season is just starting in Southern California as Santa Ana winds pick up. Four years ago, Central Texas went through the most devastating fire in the state’s history. 

Jarad Milton and his brother own close to 800 acres in a town called Smithville in Bastrop County. 

“You know, there have been cattle constantly on the place since we got the place, basically,” he said.

Milton says his grandfather bought the land before World War II for $6 an acre. They had a ranch house, barns and a little office off to the side of the main residence. The fire in 2011 destroyed the family home and the barns. Now Milton lives in the office.

Milton and his brother had 60 head of beef cattle on the land in 2011, but Texas was going through one of the state’s worst droughts on record.

“I had cut the herd in half before the fire, because things were so dry,” he said. “But the fire, just, all of a sudden you got nothing. You know, you can’t even control the cattle or keep them on the place. You know, you didn’t want them up there on the highway, and so the only thing in my mind to do was to get them out of here.”

The fire burned all of Milton’s fences. He collected his cattle and sold them in less than a week. He said if he had been able to hold onto them for another six months, he would have made about $1,200 more per steer.

Many houses were burned down to the foundation in Bastrop County. Homebuilders were brought in to assess the damage and rebuild structures.

Jan Kuchel lives down the road and works out of her home. She puts together teams to sell anti-aging vitamins. Nowadays, she spends most of her time on the internet. So, when she was forced to leave her house, one might think she wouldn’t be affected.

“I had a lot of customers,” she said. “I had a lot of people that were partners in my business that, you know, the last thing they were thinking about after they lost everything and everything melted was, ‘Gosh, where am I going to get my vitamins?’”

Items from a home in Balstrop, Texas, that melted in the fires.

In the short term, Bastrop County saw a boost in economic activity after the fire. The fire lasted through Labor Day weekend. Homebuilders and contractors were needed by year’s end because residents were getting insurance checks. Debbie Denny, head of the Bastrop Chamber of Commerce in 2011, said some families just wanted to get out.

“As far as homeowners, we figure that we lost about 500 families, so that was tough,” she said. “I believe we lost 82 businesses. Many rebuilt in different locations.” 

The antique store that had been in downtown as long as anyone can remember relocated. Now, it tries to help families get furniture for their rebuilt homes. 

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