Fires take licks at Missoula economy 

As winds shifted and temperatures dropped last week, signaling subtle changes in the season and a respite from the smoke, area businesses that are dependent on forests and rivers had a chance to gauge the financial costs that the fires and public-land closures are taking on their trade, in what would otherwise be one of their busiest weeks of the year. And in Helena, the Department of Commerce issued a request for businesses to provide information on those economic losses, in an effort to measure the toll that the fires are taking on the statewide economy.

“We are working with the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services folks to identify potential sources of money that can assist Montana business people,” says Department of Commerce director Peter Blouke. Business owners interested in becoming eligible for state or federal assistance should call the Department of Commerce at (406) 444-1872.

At Kesel’s Four Rivers fly-fishing shop near downtown Missoula, meanwhile, the abnormally dry spring, quickly dropping river levels, and fast-rising water temperatures made the summer season a war of attrition.

“I’d say we’ve lost about 80 percent of our normal business, comparing May, June and early July to the past few days with the rivers closed,” figures Four Rivers co-owner George Kesel. “I think we’ll be able to start our catalogue for next year a little earlier than anticipated. And we’ll be around to help out the angler that’s headed up to Glacier or down to Yellowstone.”

Gia Randono, co- owner of Missoula’s Lewis and Clark Trail Adventures, a rafting company, estimates her business fared better than most fishing-related ventures, but her numbers are still down 10-15 percent.

“With both the Alberton Gorge and the main Salmon [in Idaho] closed, we’ve basically closed all our trips. There’s nothing we can do,” says Randono casually. “We’re hoping that with lower nighttime temps, some of the closures might be lifted. We still have quite a few trips booked for the first part of September.”

Randono guesses that most rafting businesses may have fared better than fishing ventures, since rafters and kayakers aren’t as directly affected by lower flows and high water temperatures, an assumption that Kesel confirms. “Things really fell off starting about the 5th of July, when rivers started getting too warm,” Kesel notes. “At higher temperatures, the fish tend to congregate in pools, and with lower flows, the assumption usually is that fishing isn’t as good.”

Both Kesel and Randono seem to view the closures as more of a temporary inconvenience than a serious obstacle to running a successful business. “A lot of our guides are going back to school, and a few of them got on the fires,” says Randono. “The most frustrating part is that all of us would like to take advantage of the time off to go float the Gorge or hike somewhere, but of course if we could do that, we’d be open for business.”

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