Tourists informed that Curry is open for business

By Jane Stebbins, Pilot staff writer August 02, 2013 09:58 pm

The Coast is Clear!

That’s the message businesses along the southern Oregon coast are getting out — in commercials and emails — to counteract misinformation and to take advantage of smoky conditions in the Rogue River Valley to tout the fun that can be had in Curry County.

The air in western Curry County might be clear, but the rumors heard by Scott and Nick McNair, co-owners of Jerry’s Rogue Jets in Gold Beach, are anything but.

Fires ignited by lightning a week ago have burned about 40,000 acres in southwestern Oregon, prompting evacuations and river closures.

But not along the coast, Nick McNair noted.

“We’ve been in damage control mode, his brother, Scott, said. “All our phone calls are, ‘Are you running? What’s going on?’ or, ‘We’re cancelling because it’s too smoky on the Rogue River.’ And that’s just not true.

“We’re trying to get the word out to the valley. We know the valley is just choked with heavy particulate, but we’re good and clear on that. We’re full steam ahead.”

Teri Durham, owner of Singing Springs Resort in Agness is hearing the same rumors.

“Everyone’s hearing everything’s being burned out,” she said. “And then I turn on the TV and hear, ‘For the best air quality, go to the coast.’ It’s six of one, half-a-dozen of another.”

She’s relying on weather forecasts from the jet boat companies and fire reports from the firefighters she’s feeding every day.

Lemonade from lemons

For inland rafting companies, August is the month when money is made to keep afloat during the rest of the year, and if the fires continue, could spell the beginning of the end of their season.Here, they’ve turned the disaster into opportunity.

Jerry’s Rogue Jets hasn’t let a few wildfires and smoke get in its way of providing nature-based adventures.

“We have great weather and absolutely smoke-free skies!” an email reads. “The Wild and Scenic Rogue River from Gold Beach to Blossom Bar Rapid is open for business.”

The half-century-old company has experienced this before and weathered it well.

According to Scott, during the Biscuit Fire of 2002 and the Blossom Complex fires of 2005, the company was not forced to quit operations. It stayed busy, in part, by transporting firefighters upriver to camps upstream.

This time around, only 24 miles of the 215-mile river are closed, and then, only in the upper regions from Mule Creek to about 3 miles above Blossom Bar. The fire is another 7 miles upstream from that. And the jet boat trips only go as far as Blossom Bar.

“When people started to hear about all these closures on the Rogue, they just hear ‘Rogue’ and they associate it with Gold Beach,” Nick said. “That’s our biggest battle.”

Farther upstream, Durham said the weather is cool and calm.

“If I didn’t have fire crews coming in to be fed, I wouldn’t even know there was a fire,” she said. “We’re well out of the path of the fire. With the Biscuit Fire, it was right over the ridge. But it’s quite a ways away.”

Newspapers as far away as Seattle have painted the event with a broad stroke, Scott said.

“Any little word — they hear closure, Wild and Scenic, and their mind shuts down,” he said. “They’re hearing Gold Beach is getting evacuated. One word, and that’s the one they latch onto.”

Passengers on the company’s 104-mile Wilderness Whitewater trip can smell only a tinge of smoke on the morning departures, the email reads, and the 80-mile Whitewater Excursion and the 64-mile Historic Mail Boat Route have no smoke-related issues and are operating as usual.

Low winds and overcast skies have dampened fire activity inland, but are also preventing aircraft from getting aloft, according to officials at the command centers.

“The fires are all in some pretty remote, inaccessible regions,” Scott said. “They’re in defensive mode. There’s not much they can do.”

Durham is hoping still air that is keeping the fires tamped down will stay in place, as the Douglas Complex fires are burning in areas the 2002 fire scoured. And she could hear thunder rumbling in the area Thursday afternoon.

“If the smoke clears, it could go up like a Roman candle,” she said. “It could get real ugly real fast.”

Fire officials say the fires could burn through October if winds change and firefighters can’t immediately get hold of the situation.

“If — theoretically — the fires burn through the fall, and they continue to keep the upper Wild section closed, you’ll find the next group of people who will be impacted are the drift boat fisherman,” Scott said.

They aren’t treating the situation lightly, however.

“We’ll continue to run as usual, until smoke becomes an issue — but right now, it’s not,” Nick said. “We’ve been lucky the wind’s been in our favor.”

Durham concurred.

“So far, so good,” she said. “Business is still rolling along. We’re going to have peaks and valleys, and this is one of the days of the valleys. With any luck, (the weather) will hold and get butts back in the seats to finish out the season on a high note for all of us.”

Hotel bookings up

Hotels are seeing an unexpected uptick in reservations, as well, as inland residents seek refuge from smoky air.

“We’re getting a lot of calls, but we just don’t have the rooms,” said Dave Snazuk, owner of Best Western Beachfront Inn in Harbor, adding that some people have cancelled reservations because they’ve been told not to drive Highway 199. “The same thing happened during the Biscuit Fire; it works both ways. It could be a concern if we start seeing smoke.”

“The extra calls because of the smoke are certainly inundating us more than usual,” said Ken Bryan, owner of Wild Rivers Motorlodge. “Calls are one right after another. But his time of the year, we’re busy anyway.”

Lydia Valencia, owner of Pacific Sunset Inn in Brookings said rooms there are booked over the weekend, with most people coming from Grants Pass, Klamath Falls and Coquille.

“No smoke here,” she said. “It’s very clear.”

“We were doing well before, but now we’re doing twice as well,” said Spindrift manager Myrtle Thompson. “No one can even breathe over there, and it’s not getting any better. I’d rather just stay here.”