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How the fires incinerated Sonoma business

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The live video feed of Sonoma’s downtown, shot from a webcam situated on the Plaza’s southeast corner, is a strangely hypnotic moving snapshot. Tourists meander and cars queue at intersections, people flow up and down sidewalks. Watch livefromsonoma.com most hours of the day and you’ll see a small town in its everyday rhythms.

Except for the days when the wildfires raged last October, and then the video feed looked like a still shot. No tourists. No cars. No people in sight. The town was abandoned, smoky and ghostlike.

For weeks, Sonoma was all but deserted. The power was cut, the schools were closed, residents and visitors fled.

What economic price did the fires exact? How bad was the fallout for local businesses? And are the losses sustained even possible to calculate?

The short answer is no, at least not precisely. Smoke-tainted grapes and unpurchased souvenirs are difficult to quantify on a ledger. But a portrait emerged in conversations with city officials and local business people, all of whom reported a long, difficult year.

Cathy Capriola, Sonoma City Manager, used transit occupancy taxes (TOT) revenue to calculate losses from the hotel sector, with October 2016 and 2017 compared year over year. In October 2016, Capriola reported, the city collected $516,388 in TOT and Tourism Improvement District assessments, a surcharge of 12 percent added to all overnight hotel stays. For the same month a year later when the fires were burning, that sum fell by 41.6 percent to $301,075, a significant loss for municipal and TID coffers.

At the El Pueblo Inn, the declines were immediate, according to owner Kaala Stewart. “October 2017 had the largest number of cancellations I’ve ever seen. In total, we believe we lost about $65,000 from the fires. We gave away free night stays for three days and then started at just a few dollars and slowly raised our rates back to normal,” said Stewart, whose home in Kenwood survived the fires. “We didn’t feel it was right to charge our fellow evacuees.”

Laura Anderson, who owns Lace Herbal Products and Massage, also runs a hosted Airbnb. Both businesses were almost totally disrupted during the fires, fundamentally altering her bottom line. “I definitely lost business, a lot of business,” Anderson said. “All of my massage clients canceled, and the guests who had booked my Airbnb — both during the fires and for many weeks after — did too. I added up the lost Airbnb income, and it was over $7,000. Right after the fires I lowered my prices to help house fire victims, but the price change affected dates into the future and out of towners booked instead, thinking they’d found an amazing deal. I had to honor those bookings, of course, which cost me more money. The whole month of October was pretty much shot.”

Restaurants also suffered financial losses, with missing tourists translating as empty tables. Sondra Bernstein, whose businesses include the Girl and the Fig in downtown Sonoma, the Fig Café in Glen Ellen, and the Girl and Fig Caters, reported that the financial impact of the fires were severe and long-lasting. “We were immediately hurt,” Bernstein said. “The Fig Café is still not back to what it was. We lost a lot of neighbors there. We’ve had to cut back staff, hours, and work harder at marketing. Business was down about 22 percent for the year.”

Bernstein reported that her downtown location suffered, too, with a 6 percent decline for the year. And the catering business practically ground to a halt. “We lost a huge amount in the first two months. I would say we got back to normal there about three months ago,” Bernstein said.

Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, agreed that the economic losses from the fires were serious, and acknowledged subtractions are more difficult to calculate than additions. “It’s important to note that 90 percent of tourism businesses are locally owned, and that 82 percent employ fewer than 25 people,” Zahner said. “These businesses are susceptible to jolts like the fires and there is a ripple effect in the local economy. Some of those businesses burned, some closed, and I’m sure all of them did not anticipate having to shut in the middle of their high season.”

While the precise cost from that “ripple effect” is unknowable, Bernstein offered some concrete examples. “Staffing is worse, a lot of people have moved away. It’s hard to get a plumber, or electrical work done as (the contractors) are all so busy,” she said. “Some pricing has continued to rise, and insurance has risen, too.”

But time, it is said, heals all wounds, and an increased sense of optimism was observable everywhere as the first anniversary of the fires approached.

“I had a very successful summer,” Anderson said of her vacation rental and other business. “Lots of tourists, and nobody talks about the fires.”

“Things will come back for sure,” Bernstein agreed. “I am so grateful to the East Bay, Palo Alto, and San Francisco for the support we have received. I really believe they kept a lifeline for us. The support was needed for so many reasons.”

“We’re incredibly grateful to have bounced back to normal so quickly,” Stewart said. “We did initially run some special discounted rates, and we lived in fear in the months after the fires, assuming the worst. But I’ve never seen a more special place than here during the two weeks my family was evacuated. I’ve never felt such a sense of community. It was a beautiful thing.”

Zahner, who came to the Visitors Bureau this summer after several years with Sonoma County Tourism, has deployed a marketing blitz from the Visitors Bureau to encourage travelers to choose wine country – SVVB is aggressively spreading the word that Sonoma is open for business. “The further away from October we get, the further away in people’s memories (the fires become) and the less people think about them,” Zahner said.

But recovery is fluid, and it can be tenuous. “With the round of fires up in Redding this August, there was an increased sensitivity among travelers.” Zahner said. “But people have short attention spans. I had a bike tour company tell me recently that during a tour he showed where the fires were stopped near a local winery and his tour group asked, ‘What fires?’”

For every Sonoman who experienced the trauma of last year’s wildfires firsthand, amnesia is not an issue. Where one was and what one was doing when fire swept up the Valley is indelibly seared into memory. Zahner believes the crucible changed the complexion of the town, for businesses and the citizens who patronize them. “Are we Sonoma Strong?” Zahner said. “We always were. Now we’re Sonoma Stronger.”

Contact Kate @ kate.williams@sonomanews.com.