Wildfire retrospective: Santiam Canyon challenged by forest fires

October, 2017 Posted in Community, Nature

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By Mary Owen

Recent wildfires have wreaked havoc on local businesses and area events in the upper Santiam Canyon.

“Many of our local communities, especially Detroit and Idanha, rely on summer and shoulder season tourism to support their businesses,” said Allison McKenzie, executive director with GROW-EDC.

“Though the lake was full this year, the smoke from nearby wildfires kept many visitors away and reduced the amount of time vacation home owners spent in the area. People visit our area to experience our beautiful outdoors, but with so much smoke around the past few weeks spending time outside hasn’t been much of an option. Folks took their boats out early, canceled vacation plans and spent less time than usual the past few weeks. All of this has had an impact on local businesses.”

The wildfires have been personally heartbreaking for people who were not able to access favorite places that were burning, she added.

“We all have special places in our area that are meaningful to us, and most of those are somewhere near our waters or in our forests,” McKenzie said. “It’s been very stressful and sad.”

Hard hit by the fires was Breitenbush Hot Springs, a retreat and conference center nearby Detroit that attracts visitors from all over the world. Many spend money at nearby local establishments. Surrounded by three wildfires, Breitenbush and area summer homes were updated from a “get ready to go” status after two weeks to “go” on Sept. 18 by the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, working in cooperation with a number of county agencies.

“We actually evacuated our guests when air quality went from unhealthy to hazard, weeks before the level 3 evacuation call,” said Peter Moore, business director. “We’re into health, and people love it here. When air quality really went down, we evacuated all guests and shortly after that 70 staff, keeping a skeleton crew of 10 on the premises.”

Breitenbush set up an emergency operations center at the coast just north of Lincoln City with 10 staff who worked on canceling reservations, Moore said.

“We gave back over $100,000 in refunds,” he said. “This fire costs us a half a million in income because it happened in high season. We usually take in $4 million a year, so it was a huge economic hit.”

Moore added, “We’re a worker-owned coop so we’ll suck it up. We won’t recoup that loss, but we’re pretty much a pay as you go business. We’ll survive.”

Breitenbush was surrounded by two fires, one about a mile away to the east and the other 1.5-2 miles to the west. The Whitewater fire burned about 12,000 acres, the Little Devil, about 1,300 acres, and the Scorpion fire about 600-600 acres, totaling about 14,000 acres,
Moore said.

“Fires are a part of nature,” he said. “These fires will continue to burn until the snow comes, but right now they are not advancing. And our little piece of paradise didn’t get burnt. When rain came, it dumped almost seven inches of water on the fires, just before they reached us – just in the nick of time.”

Breitenbush planned to reopen Sept. 27, Moore said.

Ken Cartwright, station manager/program director with KYAC FM radio, credited state and county emergency coordinators for curtailing travel in the Santiam Canyon due to the danger fires presented.

“The fires severely impacted most local businesses that depend on travelers and recreation visitors,” said Cartwright, who faithfully updates fire conditions for his listeners.

“Because of the forest fires and field burning, the smoke and the threat of fires, events are either not well attended or have been canceled.”

The Detroit Lake Recreation Area Business Association canceled two popular events: the Detroit Lake Cruz In and the Cascading Rivers Wild Fang Bike Ride.

“We hear anecdotally from locals that they have curtailed their visits to the Detroit Lake area, too,” McKenzie said. “Too much smoke means they are cooped up inside for much of the time, or can’t enjoy the lake and trails like they normally do. Many turn around and come home after a day or two.”

The impact reached all the way to Stayton, where McKenzie said “lots of folks purchase supplies at grocery stores before heading east. Though Roth’s in Stayton continues to grow overall, they have noticed a downturn in sales of items that campers and boaters tend to purchase.”

Camping areas were quieter than normal, with parts of the parks shut down from non-use because of smoke and fire conditions.

“One park employee told me that campers want campfires, and that’s just not an option this year,” McKenzie said. “A business owner told me, ‘In the final weeks of the summer when the marinas were still open, no one wanted to come up here,’ even though the lake was full. The smoke was just too heavy.”

McKenzie said the closing of Detroit Lake’s two marinas also impacted Mountain High Grocery with a dip in customers, but firefighters kept them busy and are likely to be in the area for some time.

Restaurants, gas stations, lodges and bed and breakfasts, already reeling from lower numbers of expected Great American Eclipse visitors, have also suffered from the smoke.

“The comment we hear most often is that July was a great month, and with the lake so full, everyone expected to have a great season,” McKenzie said. “But when the fires and smoke heated up in August, business started dropping off. The eclipse crowd was smaller than expected, as it was throughout Oregon, but the continued smoke and fire kept people out of the area all month.

“Labor Day weekend was dead, not a surprise since the smoke was heavy in Oregon and Washington all the way out to the coast,” she added.

“For some, including Marion Forks Restaurant, that drop off in business has been offset to some extent by increased business from local firefighters.”

Plus when the I-84 shut down due to fires in the Columbia Gorge, more traffic used highways 22 and 26 to get to and from Eastern Oregon, she said.

“We don’t know yet how that may have translated into additional business,” she said. “Some folks have noticed more trucks and RVs on the road than usual. This kind of situation is not unusual for eastern Marion County. As one business owner said, ‘We just have to roll with it.’”

McKenzie called business owners in Detroit and Idanha “scrappy,” used to working around challenging weather events, low lake levels and other phenomena over which they have no control.

“Year after year, they roll up their sleeves and push through a challenging season and keep their doors open,” she said. “They are experienced at working around a problem, and if I were a betting person, I wouldn’t bet against them!”

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