Economic Impact to Reverberate Across West

Tom Keeler was driving through northeastern Arizona nine years ago when a "Watch for Elk" sign piqued his interest.

That sign led to his first glimpse of the Mogollon Rim, a dense forest of Ponderosa pine full of wildlife and dotted with lakes and streams. Three weeks later, Keeler left San Diego and moved to Heber-Overgaard to start a contracting business.

Now, he's worried he'll lose his business since most of his clients, mainly Phoenix residents looking to build second homes in the cooler highlands, were drawn by the same forest splendor.

A huge swath of the forest now lies blackened from a raging wildfire, including the area around Heber-Overgaard, where dozens of homes burned. Once a paradise for campers, hunters and those fleeing the desert heat, the place now will be remembered as a site of destruction.

From tourism to logging, ranching and farming, officials said the wildfire burning eastern Arizona could have dire long-term economic consequences.

"If there are no trees, nobody would stay here," Keeler said Monday, his fourth day at a Red Cross evacuation center at a high school.

Tourism, which accounts for about 25 percent of Arizona's $30 billion economy, is crucial to the now-charred area. The industry attracts swarms of campers, hunters and fisherman each summer, said Mark McDermott, director of the Arizona Office of Tourism.

"Their tourism is this time of year, so the impact on them is obviously devastating," he said, adding that it was too early to put a dollar estimate on the damage.

That is especially true in Show Low, the region's commercial hub. The fire has stood at the edge of the town since Sunday.

Arizona State University economist Tracy Clark said three industries stand to suffer the most: tourism, logging and farming.

"Industries supported in this area tend to be a little bit fragile. For example, if tourism is interrupted for long enough, that tends to have a bad effect that takes awhile to get behind," he said. "They don't have huge amounts of capital that would let them sit out for long."

Clark said even if there is an upswing in the economy once rebuilding starts, it will be short-lived. And the perceived risk of a fire may be hard to shake, he added.

"This is a huge fire, and the larger it gets the harder it is going to get to predict what is going on," he said. "That's going to be difficult both from the psychological standpoint of people seeing all the burning and being a little bit nervous about that."

Some of the more than 30,000 evacuees already were looking ahead and wondering if there would be anything worth returning to once the fire was extinguished.

"The people who would hang on are the people with heritage," said Dave Neff, president of the Heber-Overgaard Chamber of Commerce. "The people who have moved here over the last 10 to 15 years for retirement, they would not rebuild. The small business people, they would not survive."

Before the fire, resident Clifford Koontz, who recently retired from his logging job, had planned to start his own business.

"I was going to open a tire shop or a little eatery, but now I have doubts," the 49-year-old said.

Joel Hemming, a retiree who has lived in Heber for six years, is also wondering about the future.

"It's hard to think about leaving because I've made so many good friends here, but then again, it's hard to rebuild on burned land," he said.