Declining conditions force closure of section of Rogue River

The Rogue River's wild section has been closed because of heavy smoke and ever-creeping flames from southwest Oregon's numerous fires, Bureau of Land Management officials said Tuesday.

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 BLM's Medford District. The closure was to go into effect at 12:01 a.m. today.

The scenic section near Agness also could close because of smoke-choked conditions caused by 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 about 25 miles northwest of Grants Pass, putting off clouds of smoke that smothered the surrounding landscape.

The Jenny Creek fire also looked poised to jump the river and continue burning on the north side.

"Visibility is a huge factor in this as well," Whittington said. "If somebody had an accident on the river, we couldn't get to them because we can't fly helicopters right now.

"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 said he doesn't expect the river section to reopen soon, 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 the smoke impacted his business even before the closure. Some clients canceled because their medical conditions 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 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 River, it's the same story. Cathy Whitehouse, an employee at Morrison's Rogue River Lodge, about eight miles upstream from the Wild and 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.

"The sky's sort of a different color. You can taste it as soon as you walk outside," Whitehouse said.

Whitehouse said there had been no official requests for staff to evacuate.

"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 Tuesday of her husband, John. Black Bar is nine miles below the start of the Wild and Scenic Section at Grave Creek.

"You can't expect anybody to stay and work in a case where you could catch fire," she said.

Vanessa James said she is staying at their home near Merlin and looking after their horses in case she's asked to evacuate.

The lodge had received several cancellations from guests because of the smoky conditions, even prior to the wild section's closure, she said.

Reach reporter Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or by email at

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