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California businesses at risk amid fires, power outages

JOYCE M. ROSENBERG
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SmallBiz-Small Talk-California Fires

In this Monday Nov. 11, 2019, Kyle Chittock sets up a computerized lathe at his family's manufacturing business, Simple Country, in Grass Valley, Calif. Power outages, implemented by Pacific Gas & Electric in hopes of preventing wildfires have been unpredictable and making it hard for companies to operate. Because power could be turned off or on at any time, Chittock couldn't know in advance whether to tell staffers to come in or start home.(AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

NEW YORK (AP) — The California wildfires are taking a toll on small businesses, including those that are miles away and safe from the flames. Smoke, ash and power outages force companies to shut down or cost them business even if owners and employees aren’t forced to evacuate.

The power outages implemented by utilities in hopes of preventing wildfires have been unpredictable, making it hard for companies operate.

“Although we were warned about possible shutoffs, the extent of them was not made clear,” says Kyle Chittock, who runs his family’s feed manufacturing business, Simply Country, in Grass Valley, located more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of the massive fire known as the Kincade fire that began Oct. 23. “We lost weeks of work in October.”

Because power could be turned off or on at any time, Chittock couldn’t know in advance whether to tell staffers to come in or stay home. It could go off in the middle of the work day, a problem because some of Simply Country’s machinery can be damaged by a sudden loss of power.

Wildfires that strike California in the fall can destroy thousands of homes and businesses, and the smoke and ash that winds blow for miles pose a threat to machinery, crops and tourist venues. And when government officials order evacuations, companies shut down. Now power outages are exacerbating the problems; utilities have turned off power when it believes that weather conditions, including high winds, are ripe for fires to break out and spread. Equipment at the state’s largest utility, Pacific Gas & Electric was blamed for some fires in recent years.

An outage halted production at Cobram Estate, which grows olives and processes them into oil. Wildfire season can coincide with harvest time, a month of intense, 24/7 activity, says Ciriaco Chavez, senior technical officer for the Yolo-based firm. The olives and machinery used to process them are vulnerable to smoke and ash, and if there is a lot of production time lost to outages, the harvest could run into the rainy season that presents another hazard for the fruit.

Cobram Estate is located more than an hour away from the Kincade fire but lost more than a day’s work when the power shut down.

“It is so critical for us when we are in harvest for us to clip along and not put the oil at risk,” he says.

Companies expecting power outages to be a fact of life going forward are considering how they can keep running when they’re off the grid. Cobram Estate is exploring what Chavez calls a “significant investment” in generators and other equipment, and Chittock is looking into a combination of solar power, generators, and battery backups for Simply Country.

“It's not a cheap undertaking, but if we're truly in this situation for the next 10 years I believe it's necessary,” he says.

The owners of Big Bottom Market, a restaurant and shop in Guerneville, brought in a generator and gasoline to run it following what was called the Tubbs fire two years ago, but co-owner Michael Volpatt says, when the Kincade fire hit, “we didn’t plan on an evacuation.” The business was closed for a week, and while the flames never reached the cafe, Volpatt and business partner Kate Larkin lost revenue that they need to replace.

When Big Bottom Market closed in the past due to fire or floods, Volpatt and Larkin used personal savings to make up the revenue shortfall, but they’re not able to keep doing that. They’re seeking a Small Business Administration disaster loan following the Kincade fire.

“This created a cash flow crisis for us,” Volpatt says. “So, with a loan, if it happens again we’ll be in a better position.”

Steve Goody and his employees had to evacuate when the Kincade fire threatened Santa Rosa-based Pocket Radar and their nearby homes. Goody was out of his home for six days, but he and his staffers had their laptops with them and were able to continue working — or work as much as possible amid the disruption to their lives and worry about whether they would have homes to return to.

“The No. 1 priority was family,” says Goody, whose company sells small radar guns. “People did work to varying degrees depending on their physical situation.”

Goody, who also had to evacuate two years ago when the Tubbs fire devastated parts of Santa Rosa, stayed first at a hotel and then with family during this latest fire. While he did keep running his company remotely, he was distracted and drawn to the TV, hoping for news about what happened to his house. It was unscathed by the fire.

Even when a company and the power are running, a nearby fire can hurt business. Shana Elson contended with what’s called the Maria fire the first few days her Ventura chocolate store was open. The fire started Oct. 28 near Santa Paula, about 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. The weekend business Elson expected evaporated; although the store was nowhere near the fire, Elson had only half the sales she anticipated.

“People didn’t want to go out, knowing the fire was one town over,” says Elson, whose shop, Top This Chocolate, is in a shopping center near the ocean. Her customers include tourists, but during the fire, ash and debris from the fire in the air sent visitors in search of fun someplace else.

With wildfires expected to continue in the coming years, some Californians say they don’t want to keep dealing with the possibility of losing homes and businesses, and they’re considering leaving. But the climate, beauty and lifestyle make many owners want to keep earning their living in the state.

“Every place has its challenges and the fires are the one thing we have in northern California that can be scary or unpleasant at times — but the rest of the time it’s worth it,” Chittock says.

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Follow Joyce Rosenberg at www.twitter.com/JoyceMRosenberg. Her work can be found here: https://apnews.com.