The Rogue River's wild section will close at midnight tonight due to heavy smoke and ever-creeping flames from southwest Oregon numerous fires, Bureau of Land Management officials said.
The 34-mile wild section runs from Grave Creek near Galice to Watson Creek, just upstream from Foster Bar.
"In the interest of safety and giving people time to get down and out of the area, (we decided) that we should go ahead and close it," said Jim Whittington, spokesman for the Bureau of Land Management's Medford District.
The scenic section near Agness also could close because of smoke-choked conditions from nearby fires.
On Tuesday, three fires of the Big Windy Complex continued to burn on the river's south side. The Big Windy, Calvert Peak and Jenny Creek blazes have burned more than 2,100 acres, putting off clouds of smoke that smothered the surrounding landscape. The Jenny Creek fire also looked poised to jump the waterway and continue burning on the north side.
"Visibility is a huge factor in this as well. If somebody had an accident on the river, we couldn't get to them because we can't fly helicopters right now," Whittington said.
"It's not a decision that we make lightly," he said. "We do recognize this is a huge impact to the local community, to the local economy."
Whittington doesn't expect the closure to resolve quickly, either, as steep, inaccessible terrain will make the fires hard to extinguish.
"These fires are not going to go away anytime soon," Whittington said. "If you could pick the worst spot to start fires, these places are it."
Hugh Hague, owner of Noah's Wilderness Adventures in Ashland, said there was an impact before the closure. He'd already had some cancellations stemming from individuals' medical conditions that made them more sensitive to the smoky air.
"It's shocking to see the level, the amount of smoke that's there," Hague said, adding it's disheartening to see an outdoors area he values sustaining such heavy damage. "It's depressing and frustrating that this is the situation that we're in."
For lodges along the Rogue, it's the same story. Cathy Whitehouse, an employee at Morrison's Rogue River Lodge in Merlin upstream from the Wild & Scenic Section, said there have been 10 or so cancellations from dinner guests and rafters because of the smoke, though some rebooked for later dates. Correction: This sentence has been clarified for accuracy.
"The sky's sort of a different color. You can taste it as soon as you walk outside," Whitehouse said.
Whitehouse said there have been no requests for staff to leave yet.
"We're hoping for the best," she said.
Other lodges are working with bare bones crews.
"We basically just have an owner down there doing the job of four," Black Bar Lodge co-owner Vanessa James said of her husband John. She is staying back at their home and looking after their horses in case she's asked to evacuate. "You can't expect anybody to stay and work in a case where you could catch fire."
The lodge had also received several cancellations from guests because of the smoky conditions, even prior to the wild section's closure, she said. Correction: This sentence has been clarified for accuracy.
— Ryan Pfeil