Charting the Financial Damage of the Thomas Fire

UCSB's Economic Forecast Project Estimates Nearly $2 Billion in Insurance Claims

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense | Flickr

Annette Ding
Staff Writer

It has been three months since the Thomas Fire spread through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, charring a record high of 281,893 acres in California history. While the air quality has recovered and UCSB students have moved on from a shortened nine-week winter quarter, the economic consequences of the Thomas Fire remain.

The Economic Forecast Project (EFP), a self-supporting research program at UCSB, charted the financial devastation of the Thomas Fire through data collected from electronic surveys sent out to the businesses community, totaling 293 responses. Based on insurance claims, the damages are estimated to cost $1.8 billion.

Professor Peter Rupert, director of the EFP, presented an overview of the findings at the “What Happened and What Now” discussion at Lobero Theatre in March.

Of the businesses that responded, 60 percent were forced to close their businesses for an average of 13 business days; the longest time was 72 days.

Thirteen business days may not seem like a lot out of a year; however, December is one of the most lucrative months for businesses leading up to the holiday season. In addition, past studies revealed that a large proportion of small businesses that close for five days or more unplanned will fail, said Jeremy Levine, an intern at the EFP. Levine also serves as deputy editor of The Bottom Line.

The overview further stated that 15 percent feel they need financial assistance to continue operating, though most reported not having to permanently close in the next six months.

In response to the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslide damages, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provided emergency assistance and compensated individuals and businesses for their losses. In addition, the Small Business Administration (SBA) allowed people to register for low-interest disaster loans.

“The thing that I worry about is that even though they’re low interest loans, a lot of these businesses were marginal anyway,” Rupert said. “And so now all of a sudden, they have to pay higher insurance rates, they have to pay back SBA. It’s not clear how many will really survive.”

Despite his concern, Rupert is optimistic. “I think most of them will [survive]. I think the community has come back pretty fast. So, my hunch is that the fires and the debris flow might have been the last straw for some of these places, they might have been kind of hurting already.”

Of the businesses that have survived, Goleta’s Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) went up 59 percent over the last year, according to the overview. Not counting the new hotels, it went up 25 percent. TOT is charged when travelers rent accommodation(s) for a period of 30 days or more.

However, this was due to the large volume of firefighters and first responders who had to stay in Goleta while they fought the Thomas Fire.

It is also estimated that they spent an average of 25 percent less than the average out-of-town visitor and were able to book some hotels at lower rates. So, though occupancy rates went up, an estimation of $23 million was lost in spending by travelers.

But beyond revenue, the Thomas Fire also extracted other, less visible costs.

“We’re going to be spending a lot of money now on just getting back to where we were, and we want to grow. So, when you take that money and say these guys are getting it, what’s not seen is what we could have done with that money instead of this,” Rupert said.

In Rupert’s overview conclusion, he also expressed the importance of providing a safe environment in the future which will require analyzing riparian corridors, dealing with roads and congestion, and across agency partnership and planning.

The supply of housing, particularly in Montecito, has dwindled because many houses will not be rebuilt. This will cause housing prices to go up, but further price changes will depend on housing demand. This rests on the assurance of safety from future fires and floods, as well as the quality of housing.

A lot of vegetation in the hills of Montecito was wiped out by the Thomas Fire which eroded riparian corridors. A riparian corridor is vegetation that grows near natural bodies of water and guides the flow of water. It can slow the water flow, reducing erosion and flood damage. The lack of vegetation failed to control water flow when the mudslides hit, resulting in the formation of “carved out” canyon-like areas along Montecito’s trails, an expert told local residents at a Jan. 18 talk.

The closure of Highway 192 also caused traffic to worsen in Montecito neighborhoods. Currently, there are parallel plans in place to build a roundabout and new interchange in Montecito and widen the Highway 101. The City of Santa Barbara and the County of Santa Barbara will lead the roundabout and interchange construction; Caltrans will manage the Highway 101 project.

According to Rupert, across agency planning is integral to ensure the smooth completion of all projects. If the Highway 101 is widened ahead of the roundabouts, traffic is likely to worsen.

“On the slides, when it says a once in 200 years event, it doesn’t mean that it [the Thomas Fire and mudslides] happens once every 200. It’s a probability, and so rare events can happen all the time,” Rupert said. “I just think people need to be aware of what it means to be safe in their homes and what this kind of risk means for them.”