When smoke gets in your eyes ...
Persistent wildfire smoke is taking a toll on some Southern Oregon attractions that are key to the area's tourism industry and quality of life.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland canceled several performances of plays in its outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre in the last weeks of August.
For each show canceled in the 1,200-seat outdoor theater, OSF takes a financial hit of up to $75,000, said OSF Associate Director of Communications Eddie Wallace.
OSF offers refunds or exchanges for canceled performances. Instead of getting a refund, festival fans can also choose to donate the value of the ticket back to OSF, helping to offset the financial losses.
OSF has a smoke team that meets at 6:15 p.m. each evening to look at the latest air quality readings from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. OSF also checks in regularly with the National Weather Service in Medford to see what its weather modeling predicts, Wallace said.
If the 8 p.m. performance in the outdoor theater is canceled, OSF sends out emails, updates its website and notifies people in person at its Ashland campus.
"We're always hopeful at the beginning of the day that we'll be able to perform outside," Wallace said. "The conditions fluctuate so widely, what's going on at four o'clock is not what's going on at eight o'clock. We've learned to just be patient."
For the most part, patrons have been understanding about the situation, he said.
"People have been really, really wonderful. There's been a lot of disappointment, of course. People like to see a play in the outdoor theater. But we've had a lot of success getting people into other performances," Wallace said.
When space is available, festival-goers can switch to plays inside the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre and the Thomas Theatre, which has a flexible seating configuration that can accommodate 275 to 360 people.
"We're so thankful for people's patience during this time," Wallace said. "We know people's vacations are planned around seeing the shows. If we do cancel a performance, it is truly for the health of our audience, actors and crew."
Smoke particulate levels in the Rogue Valley have run the gamut, from good to moderate to unhealthy for sensitive groups to unhealthy for all. When conditions are unhealthy, DEQ recommends people avoid outdoor activity.
With wildfires ringing the valley expected to keep burning until they are doused by fall rain, OSF is looking at using the Ashland High School's theater for pared-down stagings when its outdoor plays are canceled, Wallace said.
The school's theater could seat 400 displaced OSF patrons for a play reading without costumes or sets. People would still be eligible for refunds, he said.
"It would simply be a gift from OSF. It would be just to alleviate the disappointment. We would offer to tell the story in the simplest possible way," Wallace said.
OSF also had to cancel some performances in 2013, 2014 and 2015 because of wildfire smoke, he said.
"It feels like this is the new reality," Wallace said.
Inevitably, the question comes up whether OSF should consider roofing the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.
"There has been some talk of a capital campaign to update the Elizabethan Theatre — perhaps with a retractable roof to allow us to perform under adverse conditions," Wallace said.
OSF doesn't have an estimate for what such an endeavor would cost, but he said it would require significant fundraising.
Pointing to Cycle Oregon's decision to cancel its almost 500-mile bike tour for the first time in its 30-year history, Wallace said OSF isn't the only Oregon attraction or event taking the wildfire smoke situation seriously.
"That's an indication of the severity of the situation we're facing," he said.
Cycle Oregon's annual ride was planned for Sept. 9-16, covering ground from Sisters in Central Oregon to Crater Lake National Park. Both Southern and Central Oregon have been hit hard by wildfires and smoke this summer.
The 100-mile Pine To Palm endurance run from Williams to Ashland was set to begin Sept. 9, but has also been canceled due to concerns over wildfires, smoke and a triple-digit heat forecast.
At Crater Lake National Park, officials still plan to hold the annual Ride the Rim bicycling event on Sept. 9 and 16.
"At this time, we haven't made any decision to cancel it. Even if we canceled it, we would still have people coming," said Crater Lake National Park Public Information Officer Marsha McCabe.
Crater Lake has been alternately engulfed with smoke and relatively clear because of the High Cascades complex of wildfires, which has burned more than 27,000 acres.
"Today is actually gorgeous," McCabe said Friday. "It's so hard to know from one day to the next. It's definitely been a lot quieter."
She said the park hasn't yet tallied its August visitation numbers.
The national park has had some cancellations of its trolley and boat tours, but most are still taking place. The lodge and campground are open, McCabe said.
"It's just the way it is in Southern Oregon right now," she said. "Some people, the smoke doesn't bother them as much. Other people choose not to come."
Multiple trails on the west and south sides of the park are closed, including the Pacific Crest Trail, because of the Spruce Lake and Blanket Creek fires, which are part of the High Cascades complex.
A six-mile section of West Rim Drive between Rim Village and North Junction is closed for construction from 9 p.m. on Sundays through 4 p.m. on Fridays into September. However, the road is open on weekends from Friday evenings through most of the day on Sundays. It also will stay open on Labor Day.
For condition updates and to see live webcams of the park, visit www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm.
The Britt Festival music venue in Jacksonville hasn't canceled performances due to smoke, said Marketing Director Mike Gantenbein.
"We've been pretty lucky and pretty blessed the smoke has cleared off to a degree for performances," he said Friday. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Saturday and the next couple of weeks."
Approximately 2,300 people came to see Huey Lewis and the News perform on Aug. 22 — Britt's first sold-out performance of the season, Gantenbein said.
Earlier this week, smoke was heavy Wednesday morning, but cleared for the evening when Collective Soul took to the stage.
Except for the Britt Orchestra, most singers, musicians and bands travel to Britt for one-night performances.
"We go on despite the weather," Gantenbein said. "Unlike the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, we can't shift people to another venue or another performance."
In Shady Cove, Rapid Pleasures Rafting Co. co-owner Dennis Enriquez said smoke represents a downside for the season, but an upside is that Rogue River flows are still good because of plentiful snowfall over the winter.
His company rents rafts, stand-up paddle boards and other equipment, and also offers a shuttle service.
"All in all, it's been a pretty good summer. Some people don't want to be out in the smoke. I can't blame them. But there are still a lot of people going," Enriquez said.
Business already was up Friday because of the Labor Day weekend. He expects things to slow down once kids are back in school and the weather cools.
Enriquez said many people, especially locals, understand that Southern Oregon is a wildfire-prone region and they have to deal with smoke.
"It's unfortunate that it happens, but what can you do? That's part of living here," he said. "We didn't have smoke last year, but we did for the two years prior. People are saying, 'I'm going anyway.'"
To view air quality measurements that are updated hourly, visit www.deq.state.or.us/aqi/.