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Oregon Caves business suffers

CAVE JUNCTION ' At this time of year, 25 employees should be scurrying around the Oregon Caves Chateau, helping 800 tourists a day.

With two fires raging some 25 miles away in the Illinois Valley, this popular lodge in the Oregon Caves National Monument has become a ghost town.

On Tuesday ' the slowest day ' only six people showed up at the chateau. It's been like this for four or five days, said manager Robbie Hanson.

The chateau is one of many businesses around the Illinois Valley that have felt the effects of the Florence and Sour Biscuit fires nearby and the closure of Highway 199 into California because of a third fire across the border. (The closure was lifted at 6 p.m. Friday.)

While some have benefited from an influx of firefighters, others, like the chateau, have suffered from the lack of tourists.

On Friday, only one employee was needed to take care of the 22-room lodge and gift shop.

That person was me, said Hanson, who was encouraged by a slight increase in tourist traffic Friday.

It had been so slow that he closed down the coffee shop Thursday.

It's a bad time of the year for a slowdown, he said.

August is our busiest month, said Hanson. We're praying ' our fingers are crossed ' that Monday things will pickup.

Hanson said many employees have evacuated the area or are at home packing.

The chateau might be slow, but things are jumping at the 60-room Junction Inn along Highway 199.

A majority of the firefighters are staying here, said front desk clerk Maggie Berry. We're booked.

So booked, in fact, that Berry has been scrambling to find staff and is sending overflow to other hotels.

The inn's restaurant has also seen a booming business.

We had 135 guys one morning at 6 a.m., said Berry. I was calling all kinds of people begging them to come help us out here.

The visitors center in Cave Junction typically receives 300 people a day, but Wednesday it was down to 43.

Things have really slowed down substantially, said Dennis Strayer, manager of the Cave Junction office of the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

A man who wears many hats, Strayer is also the spokesperson for the visitors center.

A combination of the highway closure to the south of us and the smoke are keeping people out, he said. This had been one of our busier summers, with the centennial celebration of Crater Lake.

The tourist traffic has been down, but Strayer says the center has received four times as many phone calls as normal from people wondering what's going on in the Illinois Valley.

Restaurants and gas stations are still doing pretty good, because they're supporting the fire crews, said Strayer.

The Kerbyville Museum, which remains closed, evacuated many of its more valuable items earlier this week. Strayer, who is also on the museum's board of directors, said pickup trucks transported the items to secure locations in Josephine County.

He hopes the museum will reopen this weekend if the fire threat abates.

Steve Anderson, owner of Stevereno's Restaurant, said tourist traffic has dropped off, but locals and firefighters have been coming in looking for a clean, well-lighted place to eat.

It's amazing, he said. Our business is faring pretty well.

Some of the more popular meals are seafood platters, steaks or philly sandwiches with double meat.

Everybody seems to be eating pretty hearty, and drinking a lot of water, he said.

Helicopter pilots, who make the water drops on the fire, asked Anderson to keep the restaurant open until 10 p.m. Normally, the restaurant closes at 8 p.m. during the week and 9 p.m. on the weekend.

Anderson also owns Steve's Sub and Express on Caves Highway. Since tourism has dropped off dramatically to the Oregon Caves, Anderson said sales at this restaurant are down to less than half of normal.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail