Fires in the Big Windy Complex in southern Oregon have left the Rogue River Valley filled with smoke.
They prompted the Bureau of Land Management to shut down the wild and scenic section of the river to boat traffic.
David Nogueras traveled to the area, to find out how people are coping, more than a week after the fires began.
Merlin, Oregon, is often referred to as the gateway to the Wild and Scenic Section of the Rogue River — 34 miles of world class rapids — protected from development and outside cell phone range — but yet easily accessible by I-5, just north of Grants Pass.
Debbie Thomason owns the Galice Resort, which offers tours and accommodations at the lower Rogue River. Her parents opened this place more than three decades ago. She says whenever she heads out on the river, for her it’s still like the very first time.
“I love seeing people when they come in and they’re getting ready to go on a Lower Rogue trip, what they’re like when they show up at Galice and what they’re like 4 days later. They have been changed in the most incredible way. It’s a gift,” Thomason says.
But last week the lightning came. And then the smoke, which settled upon the valley. The smoke brought swarms of small, black biting insects Thomason says she’s never seen before.
Up until that point all of the resort’s 50 rooms had been booked. Then, the first cancellations started trickling in. She says the resort’s general store was selling a lot of bug spray and chewing tobacco, which was popular with the firefighters, but it wasn’t selling much else.
But when the BLM closed the lower river, the cancellations went from a trickle to a torrent.
“It just went from being sold out to 100 percent vacancy,” Thomason says.
Thomson was forced to lay off 60 of her 67 employees. And many other tour operators like Brad Niva have been forced to make similar staff reductions.
Niva is the owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures which is just up the road.
“If you want to compare it to the shopping industry of like the Targets and the Macy’s and stuff, basically they always run in the red eleven months out of the year and Christmas is the big month they come in the black. Exactly the same thing in this industry. August is our month we all pay our bills off. It’s our profit month. And to have
it shut off just like, it’s like a snow storm cancelling Christmas,” Niva says.
Niva estimates that collectively the closure is costing industry about $100,000 a day in lost business. The upper Rogue River, although smoky, remains open for day trips.
While the lower Rogue is closed to tourists, not all boats are out of the water. The area’s steep and difficult terrain prompted fire logistics managers to seek the help of Niva and a handful of other operators.
Niva says their boats are not only moving fire crews but also the supplies needed for a functioning fire camp.
“Everything from Apples to bananas to hot coffee to power bars things like that as well as gasoline, chainsaws, tools, anything the fire crews need we are the main supply source right now.”
At the last put in before the rapids, river guide Arden Prehn waits in a boat in the event of a medical evacuation is needed at the camp.
Later she’ll be shuttling firefighters and gear to three different fire camps along the river where firefighters are protecting historic structures — like the cabin once occupied by writer Zane Grey.
It will be three days before she comes out on the other side of the canyon. She says although it is smoky, she isn’t concerned about navigating the river. After all, if you’re going to be in a fire, what better place could there be than in the water surrounded by firefighters?
“We brought splash jackets and of course we always have life jackets, you know personal flotation device. But you know, they’re going to get a little wet though those rapids,” Prehn says.
Prehn says the river has always been used as a way to move equipment from point A to point B. Gold miners used boats to transport dynamite and pick axes. Recreational rafters heading out on overnight trips bring along tents and food packed to keep out water.
She says what’s striking about these trips is that the clients are clearly fire people and not water people.
“To see cardboard boxes all strapped into a boat is so awkward for us because that’s not the way we would do things.”
Tour operator Brad Niva says income from the supply trips will soften the economic blow, but he says it will only make up about for about 20 percent of his losses.
In the meantime, he and other operators are asking the the BLM to reopen as soon as possible.
Jim Whittington is a fire information officer with the incident management team handling the Big Windy Complex.
He says the agency is constantly re-evaluating the situation, but at this point he can say when it might reopen.
“The fire is a very dangerous proposition right now. Where it’s burned hot and is now cooling off we see trees and rocks tumbling into the river from cliff sides. And some of our people have been pretty frightened by that,” Whittington says.
Fire officials expect the fires could be burning throughout the month of August.