After 16 months of living with various restrictions related to COVID-19 and a recent extreme heatwave that kept many indoors, things were starting to look good again for Sun Peaks businesses.
Earlier this month, the village was buzzing, with business owners looking forward to a busy and lucrative summer season.
That is, of course, until the Embleton Mountain wildfire sparked on July 9, resulting in an evacuation alert for Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Municipality (SPMRM) that remains in place and an ongoing road closure for non-locals.
“We were all looking forward to a really great summer after restrictions were lifted, and this is another kick in the pants,” said Suzanne Duchesne, owner-operator of Chez Joe Poutine. “It’s very depressing and painful when you look out the window and there’s no one in the village.”
Duchesne said business has slowed right down, particularly with the loss of mountain biking on the mountain. She said depending on how things go she may decide to take some time off, despite July being a money making month in normal times.
“I’ve got some family on the coast that I haven’t seen in a long time,” said Duchesne, adding that she’s extremely grateful for all the hard work that firefighters are putting in trying to control the blaze.
Things are also extremely challenging for the resort company. Sun Peaks Resort LLP (SPR) stopped running chairlift services on July 12, and hasn’t opened them back up since, meaning the resort’s popular bike park and alpine hiking trails are effectively closed.
Aidan Kelly, chief marketing officer for SPR, said this closure is likely to be in place until the road closure is lifted and the evacuation alert is lifted for SPMRM.
“For now, as long as that road is closed and the alerts in place, it’s very difficult for us to operate our mountain,” said Kelly.
Kelly added the resort would like to open up the bike park for local use, but is hamstrung by the fact the evacuation alert is in place.
“It takes more than a few minutes to get everybody back off the mountain,” he noted. “You’re talking a few hours, and that’s not what you want to be dealing with in an [evacuation] order scenario.”
For residents remaining in Sun Peaks, The Golf Course at Sun Peaks Resort is operating with 18 holes and power carts available on limited hours during this time. Residents can call the Pro Shop at 250-578-5431 for more details.
One thing both Duchesne and Kelly agree on is there is a role for either the province or federal government to step in and assist affected businesses during this difficult time.
In many ways, the resort is effectively closed for business for an indefinite amount of time.
BC Wildfire Service has not given a timeline for when the evacuation alert might be lifted, saying instead the Embleton Mountain Wildfire must be contained for this to happen.
Local MLA Peter Milobar said he’d like to see the province look at creating a program to assist local businesses.
He added the province already has pre-allocated funds that could be used.
“I think it’s something the province is going to have to look at in terms of a new approach to dealing with this particular wildfire season,” said Milobar.
The province has “within their budget $3.1 billion of unallocated COVID slush fund,” he added.
“They do have the ability and dollars sitting there to come up with some form of program for areas impacted by the wildfire.”
Milobar said the situation could put many affected businesses in peril, particularly as the federal government begins to phase out its worker support and wage subsidy programs.
Just how much are Sun Peaks businesses alone losing due to the current wildfires?
Sun Peaks Mountain Resort Mayor Al Raine suggested it’s likely businesses are losing around $300,000 to $400,000 a week.
“July, August, September are the best three summer months,” said Raine.
Raine said he would like to see the municipality work in concert with other levels of government to advocate for a support package. He added it can be difficult for decision makers on the coast, which is far less affected, to fully grasp the economic devastation.
“Within the province, the major population centers aren’t feeling the smoke or the heat from the fires,” he said. “I’m not so sure people in the Lower Mainland have a good grasp on what’s actually happening in the Interior.”
For local businesses, the wildfire situation has created another round of uncertainty, as any revenue projections have been thrown out the window.
Duchesne said one thing locals can do is get out there and support the businesses they enjoy.
“In times like these, they are the ones that keep us going,” she said.