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Fire and Smoke: Our reputation is at stake

Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a five-day series on devastating wildfires and their effects on Southern Oregon done in partnership with KTVL Channel 10. Read Part II here.

After back-to-back, smoke-plagued summers, Southern Oregon’s reputation as an outdoor Mecca is at risk.

Television reports and digital media images have left little to the imagination. Air quality in Jackson County deteriorated to the worst in the nation three days’ running in July, making outdoor recreation nearly impossible for both locals and tourists. From arts and entertainment, to athletic competition and training, to family and corporate gatherings, the smoke choked off Southern Oregon’s lifestyle.

“We can’t survive another summer like this,” said Ron Bergquist, owner of the iconic Callahan’s Mountain Lodge near the Siskiyou Summit. “One summer like this puts us on the ropes, and a second puts us out.”

Two years ago, the lodge was booked up solid — one room wasn’t spoken for throughout July, and there wasn’t a single vacancy in August. In 2017, August smoke began affecting bookings. With fires raging from the beginning of July 2018 forward, Bergquist said Callahan’s has had to refund as much as $15,000 a day in deposits.

July and August are big months for weddings and other gatherings at the lodge.

“We had zero weddings and events in August, and normally it’s our busiest month,” Bergquist said. “Who wants to have a wedding when you can’t see across the lawn?”

Bergquist has a stash of maps he normally gives to travelers day-tripping to Crater Lake. His route takes them on a loop over Dead Indian Memorial Road to Fort Klamath before heading into the park, then has them return via Union Creek and Shady Cove.

“I don’t recall giving anyone directions this summer,” he said. “With all that smoke, it would’ve been wrong of me.”

Bill Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication and a member of nine state or regional education, economic and healthcare boards, said communication is paramount in protecting Southern Oregon’s interests.

“As a region, we have to allocate resources to tell a story we want people to understand,” Thorndike said. “Otherwise, we’re subject to whatever myth or results that come about.”

Fire and smoke are not an exclusive to the State of Jefferson, a regional identity straddling the Oregon and California borderlands, said Brad Niva, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon.

“We’ve got to make sure people understand this is not just a Southern Oregon or Oregon thing, it’s a Western states thing. It’s certainly not made me want to leave the area, but it’s just a whole new world now, and we’re figuring out a way to survive.”

Tourism, long a pillar of the local economy, is at risk. There are multiple points of concern, ranging from lost revenue and jobs to revamping marketing and business operations.

“We’re trying to wrap our heads around all that,” Niva said. “How to start identifying the future of the tourism industry with smoke and fire is definitely a major concern. We’re still trying to understand the impact, and if this is truly our future. We’re all apprehensive, really, because no one wants to agree with that, but it probably is.”

Tourism officials are mulling over a new strategic plan. Although fires are generally an annual annoyance, since 2013 air quality issues have been more pronounced.

“In reality, we’ve only been dealing with the impacts on the tourism industry for five years,” Niva said.

From the ballpark to outdoor stages to vineyards, trails and rivers, scheduled activities took a hit in July and August.

Niva said loyal customers who have attended Oregon Shakespeare Festival plays for 15 years, for example, may alter their routines going forward.

“After the last two years, people are going to say, ‘Honey, I don’t think I want to come here because they’ve canceled the Elizabethan theater play for the third time,’ ” Niva said.

Traditionally, marketing efforts have targeted the summer travelers, but that thinking is changing.

“We’ve been very busy in June, July and August, it’s time to encourage more April and May and September and October visits,” Niva said.

Road runs, marathons, triathlons and cycling events are likely to be repositioned on the calendar, he said.

“It’s a good time for those events, rather when it’s hot,” Niva said. “And traffic is lighter.”

Country Crossings, the music festival relocated to the Rogue Valley two years ago, got an air quality reprieve just before the four-day event opened in July.

“But once it started, the smoke came back,” Niva said. “The event went on, but the long-term concern is that the promoter eventually pulls up stakes because of the smoke: ‘Southern Oregon is nowhere we want the event, because we can’t plan on it.’”

Then there are the scores of tour buses rolling north from the Bay Area.

“They go to Crater Lake and then to the Rogue Valley,” Niva said. “But if this continues, they’ll go straight to the ocean and skip us. That’s not a positive picture from a lodging standpoint.”

At Callahan’s the decline in revenue translated to lost jobs.

“When you lose half of your business, you have to lose half of your staff to stay in business,” Bergquist said. “On top of that, investments we were making into improvements had to be cut off, because the resources weren’t coming in.”

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival reported it lost nearly $2 million because of cancellations and moved performances, leading to 16 layoffs. Crater Lake National Park saw double-digit visitation declines throughout the peak summer months and concessionaire revenue was off 30 percent.

The region’s thriving wine industry took a double-whammy. Ross Allen, Rogue Valley Vintners spokesman and owner of 2Hawk Vineyard and Winery, reportedtasting room visits at wineries represented by his organization were down by 30 percent, resulting in a $1 million loss. The region’s grape growers also saw 2,000 tons of fruit, worth $4 million, rejected by Napa Valley winery Copper Cane due to smoke taint.

Smoke may not have the impact that interest rates have on real estate prices, but it certainly can quell demand.

Such was the case when Ron Galbreath, an agent with Coldwell Banker Pro West Real Estate in Medford, was showing two sets of clients from Dallas around Jackson County during August.

Both sets needled Galbreath because brochures, photos and web pages all portrayed clear, blue sky.

“Now we’re being told if you stand outside here, it’s same as smoking eight packs of cigarettes,” the clients told Galbreath.

From Saturday morning until Sunday afternoon, the agent navigated the valley showing homes in the $500,000 to $600,000 range, looking for clear air.

“We drove from Central Point to Prospect and couldn’t get out of the smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t convince them that it’s not this way every day. The perception was hard to overcome because of all the nasty air.”

Ultimately, the home shoppers moved on to Central Oregon and Lane County.

“They were considering Southern Oregon, because they heard it doesn’t rain as much here,” Galbreath said. “But it was easy for them to make the decision because of Southern Oregon’s air quality. I couldn’t convince them to give us another try.”

Consistent smoky summers begin shaping an image that’s hard to shake, he said. “We have livability and air quality issues now.”

Attracting a company to the region involves a lot of elements. The smoke hasn’t been a significant factor, said Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc. Executive Director Colleen Padilla.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in the country, there are going to be some natural hazards,” Padilla said.

“Smoke here is not unlike hurricanes and tornadoes in other areas. We live in the middle of a forest, it’s our natural hazard.”

Recruiting highly skilled professionals doesn’t get easier when the air is foul, especially in the health care field.

Asante spokesperson Lauren Van Sickle said natural disasters aren’t unique to Southern Oregon.

“Many areas have something that may pose as a deterrent: Hurricanes, harsh winters, tornadoes or extreme heat,” Van Sickle wrote in an email. “When a prospective candidate arrives during the six to eight weeks when wildfire smoke is prevalent, we are very upfront about the situation. Southern Oregon may or may not have wildfire smoke for two months out of the year. We are clear in our communication about that; however, we stress that the other 10 months here are amazing.”

Thorndike thinks prolonged smoke may require lifestyle changes.

“It may be that people modify their patterns by using Amazon, or the newer ways people shop,” he said.

The shroud of smoke may have other effects.

“Maybe people will care more about their neighbors and our community and stay aware of the smoke’s impact on our youth and the elderly,” he said. “We always rise with a crisis towards solutions, and maybe this is one of those instances where we have a crisis that will improve our community going forward.”

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 o

r gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

In this photo taken Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, smoke from the National Creek Complex fire rises above the horizon across Diamond Lake, Ore., in this view from the Diamond Lake Resort. AP Photo/John H. Jonesburg III