West Coast dealerships in path of wildfires ‘hanging in there’

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When the sheriff walked into TC Chevy in Ashland, Ore., last week seeking help with fire evacuation of a nearby memory loss care center, the dealership staff immediately went to work.

“We just happened to have four 15-passenger vans in stock,” dealership owner Alan DeBoer told Automotive News. “In less than 15 minutes, we had all of the people loaded and a pickup full of walkers and wheelchairs.”

As wildfires approached the area, DeBoer’s staff evacuated the care center and then the dealership on Tuesday, Sept. 8. DeBoer expected the dealership to be shuttered at least through last weekend. As of late last week, the dealership had no fire damage, but power, water, Internet and phone connections were out at the store.

TC Chevy is among the many dealerships in Western states grappling with the effects of wildfires tearing through the region. Greg Remensperger, executive vice president of the Oregon Automobile Dealer Association, told Automotive News that his members “are hanging in there and they are trying to do what they can. They have optimized all of their vans and vehicles that they can to shuttle people out of the area.”

The fire that caused TC Chevy’s evacuation is blazing between Ashland and Phoenix, Ore. Remensperger described Phoenix as home to 4,500 residents and said 1,000 homes there have been destroyed by the fire. Dealerships in the area will be challenged by connection issues even after the fires, he said.

“The main supply for Internet and cable is all fiber optic, and it all melted in the fire,” Remensperger said. “It’s going to be weeks before that’s replaced.”

West Coast states have experienced at least 50 wildfires since the middle of August. According to the Weather Channel, California’s August Complex Fire became the largest fire in that state’s history, burning nearly 500,000 acres (780 square miles) and killing at least 10 people. As of the morning of Friday, Sept. 11, wildfires had burned 930 square miles in Washington and 1,400 square miles in Oregon, the outlet reported.

The wildfires add to challenges for dealers already coping with the pandemic. Butler Ford and Butler Acura, also in Ashland, had to close Tuesday morning with little warning.

“I know we are not going to be able to turn hours like we want to turn,” said Curtis Hancock, director of fixed operations at Butler Automotive Group. “But we just don’t want to lose customers because we are down. We want to let our customers know that, if they need immediate attention, we are going to figure out how to help them.”

Butler Automotive also has two stores in Medford, Ore., that were still open late last week. Hancock said the group planned to use those locations to service vehicles while the Ashland dealerships were closed.

“I am blessed that we did not burn down, and the problems that I am describing are minimal compared to what everybody is going through,” Hancock said.

Lithia Motors Inc., the third-largest new-vehicle retailer in the country, is based in Medford. It closed its headquarters Wednesday, Sept. 9, in anticipation of evacuation orders that never came, Tom Dobry, Lithia’s chief marketing officer, said in an email.

The office reopened Thursday. Lithia Toyota of Medford closed Wednesday but reopened Thursday.

“We’ve been very fortunate given the circumstances,” Dobry wrote. “All of our stores are currently open, and the disruption to business has been minimal.”

In California, Oroville Toyota-Chevrolet posted on Facebook that it was temporarily closed Wednesday.

TC Chevy planned to reopen Monday, Sept. 14, but had no power as of Friday, said DeBoer, formerly a state senator and Ashland mayor.

“It is a horrible experience, and I think Oregon will put more resources into cleaning up our forests,” he said. “Literally, the fire was unstoppable.”

He was searching for a generator and trying to get water pumps running at the dealership. He expressed gratitude for first responders working on the fire’s front lines.

“We will come together — southern Oregon is a great place to live and a great place to be,” DeBoer said. “This is just one of those things where Mother Nature just upsets you.”

Tom Worobec and Jackie Charniga contributed to this report.

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