WHITE CITY — Young guns going afield this week for the annual youth pheasant hunt have an ever-growing list of safety items to be worn and carried.
Hunter-orange hat and vest: Check.
Eye protection: Check.
N95 face mask capable of filtering particulate matter from wildfire smoke: WTH?
Denman's popular youth pheasant hunt set for Sept. 16-17 (date corrected) kicks off the rifle and shotgun portions of Oregon's fall hunting seasons. And like the bigger picture of hunting statewide, this little snapshot of it will continue as planned despite more than a quarter-million acres of Oregon now ablaze.
Routine periods of hazardous air quality triggered by wildfires as close as the Applegate Valley have not coerced Denman officials into calling off the youth hunt for the first time since its inception 24 years ago.
Instead, they so far have elected to let the kids and their parents decide whether they hit the fields in search of planted pen-raised pheasants — even if it takes Darth Vader-like panting through masks to do so.
"If people think it's too unhealthy to hunt, it's an individual choice," Denman Manager Clayton Barber says. "But if people want to come, we'll provide the opportunity."
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife officials have no interest in a preemptive shutdown of hunting seasons.
"Unless the forest closes for some reason, hunters will be out there along with all the other people in the woods fishing, camping and picking huckleberries," says Tom Thornton, the ODFW's game program manager. "As long as the forests are open, we'll have hunting."
Fifteen years ago, extreme fire danger led to a partial hunting ban in Oregon, but it wasn't the ODFW pulling the trigger on it.
During the early part of the archery season that year, the Oregon Department of Forestry closed access to federal Bureau of Land Management lands, where it is in charge of wildfire protection. Eventually, archers returned to the forest when extreme fire danger eased.
Even in 2002, the ODFW did not alter seasons to give archers their expected time in the woods because various seasons all bleed into one another. Thornton says his agency wants no business with extending one user group's season by reducing opportunities for others.
What it comes down to for hunters during horrific wildfire conditions like this year is access.
The Forest Service and BLM instituted mass public-safety closures around fires, blocking access into large swaths of northwest Jackson County and southeast Douglas County where firefighters are battling the High Cascades Complex of fires.
That's prime deer and elk hunting haunts for archers now and rifle hunters later.
Moreover, private landowners and corporate timber companies are closing public access, which happens routinely now in Southern Oregon regardless of how good, or bad, fire season becomes.
The Oregon Department of Forestry keeps a detailed listing of private lands access status based on ownership on its website.
For the kids at Denman who do go afield, the bright hues of flying pheasants won't be obscured by smoke. Even in the haziest of smoke conditions, these young shotgunners can still see farther than they can shoot.
"I don't think it'll effect hunting," Barber says.
And if they show up only with the requisite eye protection and bright orange clothing, Barber will lay a N95 on them if they desire.
"If they want one of those masks, we'll provide that, too," Barber says.