Photo by Marcy Stamper

The popular Fork food truck shut down for two weeks when business slowed to a trickle.

Fires help some local businesses, but tourism suffers

“We’re calling it Smogust,” said Marlene Temple, information clerk at the Winthrop visitors information center. “It’s just a bad time — again.”

Temple, who normally helps tourists discover new hikes or places to swim, has been fielding more mundane questions in the past few weeks. People want to know “When’s the smoke going to go away?” “How close are the fires?” And, “Is it safe to be here and to go over Highway 20?” she said. Temple estimated that tourism has fallen by 50 percent in the past week or two.

This week, the U.S. Forest Service called Temple to let her know which trails are open — that was a first, she said.

“We’ve got people bailing like crazy — even after Labor Day and late into September,” said Kathleen Jardin, co-owner of Central Reservations. In general, August is becoming a weaker month for tourism in the Methow Valley because people can’t count on it, she said.

Central Reservations has been providing full refunds. “We have to be gracious to escape the scathing reviews people post on national booking websites,” Jardin said.

Although they’ve had cancellations, people are still coming to the Riverbend RV Park, said owner Shane Voigt. A few campers left early, and many call to ask about air quality before they arrive. Some guests come anyway because the air is no better at home, he said.

Some people panicked because they saw a news report that Twisp and Winthrop had been evacuated, said Voigt. “People think the fire is engulfing the town,” he said.

Voigt changed the refund policy and is charging only a cancellation fee. But it still costs money every time they run a credit card, whether it’s for a deposit or a refund, he said.

Lodging for fire crews has helped fill some motel rooms. The incident management team is using schools and motels to give night crews a quiet place to rest during the day, said Jason Nedlo, a public information officer with the Southern Area Blue Type 1 team.

This isn’t a perk — even the incident commander sleeps in a tent at the fire camp. But for people working from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. — most of whom aren’t accustomed to working the night shift — it’s important for them to be rested and alert on the fire lines, said Nedlo.

Giving up

Nancy Pfeiffer and Steve Morse, who run the Fork food truck in Twisp, finally threw in the towel on Friday (Aug. 17) and closed for two weeks. “It’s really impacting us. We used to have lines, but it’s been an 80- or 90-percent reduction because people don’t want to eat outside,” said Pfeiffer. When construction got underway at TwispWorks, where the truck usually parks, the rest of their business disappeared, she said. Fork has a big local following and makes all its money from mid-April through the end of September.

It isn’t that it costs Fork money to be open — they don’t have employees and their menu helps avoid spoilage. It’s more the emotional toll. “I’m not a negative person, but it’s really hard, psychologically, to come to work when I’m used to having a line,” said Pfeiffer. 

People were still rolling into Winthrop last week, before the smoke got bad, said Julie Muyllaert, co-owner of Methow Cycle & Sport, and a representative on the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce.

“Things have slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t completely turned to the south, in part because there’s smoke everywhere in the greater Northwest,” said Muyllaert. People call and ask if she would go out for a bike ride. “I tell them I wouldn’t,” she said. It’s even worse because so many trails are closed, she said.

Business as usual?

At the Old Schoolhouse Brewery (OSB) in Winthrop, it was bustling during the Monday lunch hour this week. Business has been fairly normal, since summer crowds tend to fluctuate, said Tricia Newton, the front-of-house manager. But the brewery closed its popular outdoor eating area on Friday (Aug. 17) when the smoke became so unhealthy, said Newton.

The OSB Taproom in Twisp is suffering much more, in part because the air quality is worse there. But the biggest impact — and on other businesses at TwispWorks — is the construction at TwispWorks, where the parking lot has been torn up and a new OSB brewery is being built, said Newton.

Most firefighters don’t go out to eat because they get a free meal at camp, although they may stop and get a snack on their way back to camp, said Nedlo. There is a no-alcohol policy at the fire camp, and firefighters don’t usually go out after a long day on the job, he said.

Still, there is some business from fire crews who head into town to unwind, according to businesspeople in Winthrop.

Help for some

Having almost a thousand firefighters and support staff in the valley for weeks has been a boon for some businesses.

Dwain Hutson, owner of Napa Auto Parts in Twisp, has been getting to work at 6:30 in the morning to help firefighters who line up for replacement parts. “It’s a sad thing, but the fires do help us because so much equipment comes to town,” he said.

Even Napa’s business is tied to the seasonal economy. Sales drop by half in the winter and it takes four months to break even, said Hutson. The store relies on second-home owners, who need lawnmower or tractor parts, and on tourists, he said.

People are stocking up on irrigation supplies like hoses, sprinklers and water tanks at Cascade Pipe & Feed Supply, which has had to place rush orders for more hoses. The Twisp store is also renting U-Haul trucks to people who need to evacuate.

The fire management team has agreements with local businesses for some supplies and services. In the first two weeks of August, the team spent $250,000 with local businesses, including food, laundry services, rental of the Blues Ranch for the fire camp, and contracts with local fire crews, according to the fire team.

Until last week, sales at Hank’s Harvest Foods in Twisp were up compared to last year, said owner Hank Konrad. The fire camp has bought some food for meals, but they have no formal agreement with the store, he said.

Although a lot of firefighters stop in the store, they won’t make up for the lack of tourists or the locals who’ve left town, said Konrad.

The Methow Valley Thriftway in Winthrop has seen a similar downturn. The store has made some sales to the fire camp, but has seen a big drop-off in tourists, said Manager Trevor Ahrens.

“We’ll be fine. But what really bothers us is that people in the restaurant business and hotel business who shop here don’t get paychecks,” said Konrad.

Real estate

The wildfires have also derailed real estate transactions, since insurance companies have put a moratorium on new homeowner policies. At least one closing is on hold because the buyer couldn’t get insurance, said Brian Colin, designated broker and owner of Mountain to River Realty.

VIP Insurance Agency in Winthrop works with a dozen insurance companies, and all have imposed some type of moratorium, said manager Kelsey Bourn. Some are going by ZIP code and some by the distance from a fire, she said.

VIP has been able to secure insurance to allow some sales to go forward, but that often means a higher premium, said Bourn.

Local insurance agents already struggle to find coverage for houses that are far from a fire station or off the grid. Almost every company does an exterior inspection for defensible space before issuing a new policy, said Bourn.

Insurance companies base premiums on protection classes, which go from 2 (the best protection) to 10 (the riskiest), said Bourn. The Methow Valley has lots of homes rated at 9 or 10, and even downtown Twisp and Winthrop are considered a 6. By contrast, Seattle is generally 2 or 3, she said.

The uncertainty of wildfire season makes it difficult to plan, particularly for businesses that rely on summer income. “It would be nice if there was a really clear path forward with a message, but it really does change from morning to afternoon, and day to day. We just try to be honest,” said Muyllaert.

“Until this lifts, I think there’s going to be a pall on our community,” said Jardin.