After more than two weeks of cancellations, staff reductions and an estimated industry loss of about $100,000 a day, some business owners who earn their livelihood off Rogue River recreation are giving some cautious smiles.
The river's Wild section that closed July 31 because of fires raging nearby and heavy smoke reopened at 7 a.m. Monday. The section runs from Grave Creek to Mule Creek.
Air quality levels in the area surrounding the Big Windy fire improved over the weekend, contributing to the restricted opening of the Rogue's Wild section.
Grants Pass air quality levels monitored by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality did not drop below unhealthy levels from July 29 to Aug. 8, but improved to either "unhealthy for sensitive groups" or "moderate" Aug. 9-11.
Rains that fell Friday and Saturday helped thin the smoke. Over the past seven days, between a half inch and an inch of rain has fallen at various points across the Big Windy, National Weather Service officials said.
"Just the general movement of the rain is mixing up and mixing down," said meteorologist Misty Duncan. "It is soaking (ash) up somewhat to a degree."
The rains helped to slow the fire's growth but have also delayed work on burnouts to bolster fire lines.
Those rains are done for now. A low-pressure front has since moved out of the region, and sunny skies are in the forecast the rest of the week.
The Big Windy had grown to more than 15,000 acres as of Monday afternoon, with crews reporting 15 percent containment.
The Douglas Complex burning seven miles north of Glendale exceeded 45,000 acres Monday, when crews had 48 percent of the blaze contained. The 11,000-acre Whiskey Complex was at 40 percent containment Monday.
— Ryan Pfeil
Several restrictions remain in place for boaters, however, because of continuing efforts to extinguish the nearby Big Windy fire.
"We look at current and predicted fire behavior. We still don't want anybody on that south side of the river," said Stan Hinatsu, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. "There's still that potential for something to happen, and we're hoping that's not going to be the case. It's just a precaution."
Raft-guiding companies and lodges along the river — even those along still-open sections — felt the impact during the closure, which occurred at the time of year that is their busiest.
"This is like our Christmas season," said Debbie Thomason, owner of Galice Lodge near Grants Pass. "This is the time of year we make the money to be able to carry us through the winter."
Thomason said she hadn't seen such a drop in business in the 33 years she's been running the resort, which includes a restaurant and rooms. Thomason said she had to lay off most of her 67-person staff, including housekeepers, shuttle drivers and those who work the restaurant and boat shed.
"I think that was the hardest call I had to make," Thomason said. "They wanted to know when they were working again, and I didn't have an answer."
River guide companies felt the sting, too. Rogue Wilderness Adventures saw hundreds of cancellations because of the smoke.
"It's been a tough two weeks to say the least," said owner Brad Niva. "It was like someone flipped the light switch."
Local residents noticed the drop in tourism, too, with fewer people buying gas, eating at restaurants or staying in local motels.
"I just hope people come back. That's the real issue," said Craig Pear, who lives near Grants Pass.
Pete Wallstrom of Momentum River Expeditions in Ashland said his trips scheduled for this week remained canceled, to give guests time to change their plans, but trips for next week were filled.
Erik Weiseth, general manager of Orange Torpedo Trips in Merlin, estimated the company lost 20 percent of annual revenue, but guides would be taking a group of 20 — half their typical weekly quota — down the river on Friday. He canceled a trip for Monday because there was too little time to get people ready. Day trips and rentals for parts of the river that remained open also were down. Some of the Rogue Canyon trips were moved to other rivers.
Affordable Shuttles owner Sharon McCall said she lost revenue from the 12-day closure, but her business would survive and she was ready to go back to work. The closure of the Bear Camp Road shuttle route meant she would have to take rafters' vehicles to the Foster Bar takeout by the longer coast route, which doubled the fee to $200.
"I'm not crying," she said. "It's all nature."
Monday's reopening of the lower Rogue River gave tourism-based businesses in the area a modicum of hope.
"I think it put a lot of smiles on everyone's faces," said Brendan Larson, Rogue Wilderness Adventures guide.
Thomason said she is cautiously optimistic, but hopes that river and lodging traffic start to return soon.
"Summer's not over. Summer's over when you decide it's over," she said.
Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at email@example.com. Jeff Duewel of the Grants Pass Daily Courier also contributed to this story.