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Businesses Feeling the Heat From Wildfire

September 28, 2002|JERRY HIRSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Summer and early fall are supposed to be high season for Ron Hoagland of Azusa Gold, a mining supply store at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.

From June through October, amateur miners stop at Hoagland's store in a strip mall on North Azusa Avenue to pick up supplies ranging from simple gold pans to $10,000 power dredgers and washers before heading for the wilderness off East Fork Road west of Mount Baldy.

This year, though, gold season has been replaced by fire season.

The closure of parts of the Angeles National Forest for recreational uses until the rainy season has killed off Hoagland's business, plunging daily sales to $5 to $10 a day from the normal $200 to $300.

The giant Williams wildfire burning in the mountains is an economic disaster for Hoagland and dozens of business owners and their employees who depend on the vast recreation area for their livelihoods.

Still, as long as the blaze stays up in the mountains, away from the roughly 10,000 homes that firefighters say are in reach of the flames, the effect on Southern California's multibillion-dollar economy will be minimal overall.

"It's like trying to figure out what the cost is of rounding up another bear that has wandered into Monrovia," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Other costs from the fire include hundreds of evacuees missing work; visits to doctors by individuals sensitive to smoke and ash; the loss of about 75 cabins and small structures in the mountains; and the estimated $10-million expense of fighting the fire for state and regional governments. There also may be some intangible drain from how the blaze adds to the apocalyptic image of Southern California as a place of fire, flood and earthquakes.

"It might encourage tourists to book trips elsewhere," Kyser said.

At LaVerne Car Wash on Foothill Boulevard, business this week was particularly slow; people don't want to get their cars washed as long as ash is raining from the sky.

But Greg Meier, the business' general manager, expects things to pick up soon. "I assume that once the fire is out, we will be very busy because people will want to get that ash off their cars," he said.

Some can't afford to wait. The Ford dealership in Upland has had to increase its car-washing schedule from twice a week to four times a week for vehicles on its lot so that new vehicles will remain shiny for perspective buyers. Yet the fire has not kept customers from the showroom, a sales manager said, perhaps because new models have just arrived and financing incentives are about to expire.

Some businesses actually are profiting from the wildfire. Firefighters and evacuees have pushed the occupancy rate at Super 8 Motel in Azusa to about 75% of its 44 rooms this week, compared with an average of 50% that is typical on weekdays.

Disasters often have a stimulative effect on a local economy in the months that follow, Kyser said. The Northridge earthquake in 1994 sparked an economic boomlet the following year as federal disaster money and insurance payments flowed in, the economist said. Earthquake-related building also helped the construction industry in the San Fernando Valley rebound one to two years earlier than other Southern California regions from the economic slump of a decade ago. However, there is no indication that the Williams wildfire will have the same effect.

But for now, Cal Risen, owner of El Encanto Restaurant on Old San Gabriel Canyon Road, and his 25 employees are out of work.

Risen said his restaurant has been closed for nine days over the last month because of fires in the local mountains. This week, his parking lot was a staging area for firetrucks and other equipment. Absent were the cars of his patrons from Azusa and surrounding communities. The restaurant, originally built as a home in 1920, normally serves about 500 meals a week.

"This has not been good for us," Risen said.

Yet if firefighters can get enough control over the blaze to reopen his block, Risen said, he should be able to get back to business fairly quickly.

Others are less optimistic. "It looks like I am going to have no business for as long as two months," Hoagland said. The mining-shop owner is considering closing his doors and not reopening until late November.

Hoagland is a dual victim. He lives in Follows Camp, one of the evacuated areas. After staying a day at a local motel, he is sleeping on a makeshift bed of foam rubber and a sleeping bag in his store to save money.

The fire's timing is especially bad for him. It comes in the final weeks of the period when miners are allowed to use expensive power equipment in mountain streams. Regulations prohibit the use of the equipment during the winter and spring to protect spawning fish.

Hoagland has fire insurance that would help if his store were overrun by flames. But he has no coverage for the losses he is suffering from the closure of the forest.

"I am not sure," he said, "if the store is going to survive this."

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