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Fire destroys Galice Resort

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Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Firefighters respond Tuesday to a fire at Galice Resort on the Rogue River.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune A fire caused major damage Tuesday to Galice Resort, a popular rafting and recreation business on the Rogue River outside Merlin.

A popular tourist stop along the Rogue River outside Merlin is gone after a fire leveled parts of the historic structure in a matter of hours.

Galice Resort was destroyed Tuesday in a fire that at one point had a Type 2 helicopter dump buckets of water from the Rogue River to tamp down the flames, according to Rural Metro Fire public information officer Jes Webb.

“The building is pretty much a total loss,” Webb said.

Some 35 personnel with four firefighting agencies — Rural Metro, Grants Pass Fire/Rescue, Rogue River Fire District and the Oregon Department of Forestry — battled the blaze that apparently began in the restaurant area of the resort and sparked a quickly contained wildfire in the area.

“We don’t know what started it,” Webb said.

Webb, who spoke at the scene of the fire, did not know when the fire was first reported because the remote canyon where the resort is located was outside of cell range.

What’s known is that the resort opened for business Tuesday morning, and at about 10:45 a.m. a resort employee called 911 after smelling smoke possibly coming from the floors.

A dispatcher instructed the employee to evacuate the building and close all windows and doors in an attempt to starve the fire of oxygen.

“She did everything right,” Webb said.

The fire spread rapidly after burning holes through the floor and roof. But before the fire vented itself — and while the business was being evacuated — staff had time to move rafts and other rental inventory out of the building.

Fire often ravages historic structures because they aren’t equipped with the same types of fire breaks as a modern building, such as steel fire doors, according to Webb, listing as examples the historic Mon Desir restaurant in Central Point, which burned to the ground in 2014, and the Butte Creek Mill in Eagle Point, which burned on Christmas Day in 2015.

"They tend to be more of a tinderbox when they’re older,“ Webb said.

The resort included a restaurant, store and rafting service. The resort’s cabins and nearby houses are still intact after the fire, according to Webb.

Debbie Thomason, the second-generation owner of the resort , was not available for comment Tuesday, with Webb describing Thomason as “still in shock.” According to Mail Tribune archives, the business has been in Thomason’s family since 1981.

“She just doesn’t know what to say yet,” Webb said.

Employees with name tags loading up salvaged rafting equipment for the business declined to comment when approached.

Webb described Thomason’s business — about 12 miles west of Merlin — as a key employer in the area, especially for youth looking for part-time summer jobs.

Webb said that the business had struggled in recent years because of devastating summer wildfire seasons and choking smoke that drove away tourists.

“There’s a certain amount of irony that she’s been stopped again by fire,” Webb said. “And this time in the worst of ways.”

The blaze sparked five small spot fires nearby, according to Oregon Department of Forestry Southwest Region spokeswoman Natalie Weber. All of the spot fires combined were less than a tenth of an acre.

“They caught all of them very small,” Weber said.

To protect nearby residences, ODF deployed four engines, an attack helicopter and an aerial unit that was on the lookout for spot fires.

Although wildland firefighters faced dry conditions, a quick response from ODF’s Galice-based engine crew and cool, overcast weather with temperatures in the 60s helped crews keep the spot fires under control.

When the spot fires were contained, the helicopter attacked the structure fires.

“It worked out that the river was right there and they could keep scooping up water,” Weber said.

Because there were no hydrants in the area, fire engines working the structure fire also used river water to battle the flames, according to Webb and Weber.

“This could’ve been a much bigger incident,” Weber said. “The resort was lost, of course, but it didn’t go beyond that, and it definitely could have.”

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or nmorgan@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTCrimeBeat.