After an uncertain spring and a difficult summer, outfitters could use a break. Unfortunately, along the western coast of the United States, wildfires are raging. In this region of the country, over 5 million acres have burned in recent weeks. Thousands have lost their homes and businesses in California, Oregon, and Washington in one of the most intense fire seasons in recorded history. On September 9, the US Forest Service closed all 18 forests in California, citing “unprecedented and historic fire conditions throughout the state.” Some forests and forest areas have temporarily closed in Oregon and Washington as well. The National Park Service has also announced closures, including Sequoia National Park and sections of many parks throughout the coast.
Members in the West Adapt as Fires Burn
Several members have operations near the wildfires and have had to adapt operations due to safety and to support their staff and community. We spoke with Pete Wallstom from Momentum River Expeditions in Ashland, Oregon this week to learn how the team is coping. “We canceled all trips from last Tuesday, September 8, until September 16 because it was not safe or helpful to have people visit as roads were packed with evacuees and rescue people; several of our guides and staff have lost their homes,” Pete reported. The area of Ashland is surrounded by fires, and smoke has also been a big issue over the last couple of weeks. During the time of closure, the Momentum team came together to support the community by making food and helping local shelters collect gear. As Momentum River Expeditions moves forward with trips, they are focusing on the Rogue River where smoke has dissipated. “We are asking guests to avoid taking up hotel rooms in the Ashland and Medford areas as they are full of people who lost their homes.”
In nearby Phoenix, OR, Indigo Creek Outfitters has decided to close for the remainder of the season. “We don’t have access to our rafting center, located in downtown Phoenix, where the fire ran through,” owner Will Volpert said. “The level of destruction to our community is difficult to comprehend. Over 2,300 residential properties were destroyed.” For a comprehensive update from Indigo Creek, you can visit their website.
According to Nate Rangel with Raftcalifornia and California Outdoors, the National Forest closures came at a time when they were seeing unprecedented public interest in fall trips, and a chance to catch up after a tough year. Some river trips would have been viable to operate except for a one-mile stretch passing through National Forest lands, forcing a shutdown. A few rivers, like the South Fork of the American, are still open. “In California we are used to fires,” said Rangel. In addition to this record-setting year, California had record fire seasons in both 2017 and 2018. But that familiarity doesn’t ease the impacts on operators forced to shut down early, after opening late, and operating at a constrained capacity through the summer. “My heart goes out to people in Oregon and Washington, especially those who have lost their homes and operations. Oregon and Washington don’t get fires like this, and it’s disturbing to think that those lush forests could burn with such intensity. And, of course, the same condolences to our fellow Californians.”
Wildfire Impacts Remain
As we focus on the current crises in the West, we also got some perspective from Steven Foy of the Nantahala Outdoor Center on how fires affect operations in the years after an active burn. In 2016, East Tennessee and Western North Carolina experienced multiple wildfires. “NOC was on the brink of fire damage in several of our locations in 2016 and had significant business impacts into 2017.While we didn’t have any actual fire damage, we were close and did have some smoke damage in our largest retail store,” Foy explained.
In late summer of 2019, three years after the wildfires, a series of landslides caused significant damage in the Nantahala Gorge. A collaborative of researchers are studying the connection between wildfires and the landslides in North Carolina.
If you wish to donate to efforts led by the outfitter community, AO member Sawyer Paddles and Oars is raising money and matching donations for the affected families in Talent, Oregon. Two GoFundMe campaigns have emerged to support Noah's Wilderness Adventures, Inc. and North Umpqua Outfitters, who have been severely impacted.
Photo 1: Momentum Rafting Expeditions team prepares pizzas for the community while closed down.
Photo 2: A restaurant at the Nantahala Outdoor Center close to fires in 2016. Photo by NOC Staff, Ron Mitschke.