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Originally published Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 10:12 AM

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Oregon wildfires shut down Rogue River rafting, Ashland play

Tourism sinks after the closure of the river’s wild-and-scenic section, and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival canceled a Wednesday night performance because of smoke.

Associated Press

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PORTLAND, Ore. — For businesses that make their money from rafters and other Rogue River tourists, this week’s closing of the river’s wild-and-scenic section because of wildfires is like a department store facing a paralyzing December blizzard.

“August is our Christmas month,” said Brad Niva, owner of Rogue Wilderness Adventures in Merlin. “It’s the month that we make our living; we pay off our bills. It’s the biggest month of our year — to have this happen is devastating.”

Multiple outbreaks of wildfire have scorched 55 square miles in southwest Oregon since Friday, and Gov. John Kitzhaber has declared a state of emergency in two counties. More than 100 people have been handed evacuation notices, and the entire region is dealing with hazy skies.

The smoke led the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland to cancel a Wednesday night performance at its outdoor stage, due to health concerns because of the smoky air. Government warnings also have been issued to limit outdoor activities.

The Rogue River closure has also taken business away from outfitters, lodge owners and others at the height of the summer tourist season.

Federal authorities Tuesday shut down the 34-mile wild whitewater section of the Rogue River out of fear they couldn’t get a helicopter in if a rafter had to be rescued. Jim Whittington, a Bureau of Land Management spokesman based in Medford, told the Mail Tribune newspaper that the agency is aware of the economic hardship, but safety is the higher priority.

Niva estimated the loss to outfitting businesses on the Rogue at $100,000 per day.

“Each day, there are 120 people out in the lower Rogue River canyon, and all 120 people are being canceled,” Niva said. “These are people that have come from all over the country, all over the world to go a down the famous Rogue River, and they can’t do that now.”

The Blossom Complex Fire forced a 12-day closure in 2005, so business owners have been through this before.

The owners, however, said the suddenness of this year’s action surprised them. With America emerging from the recession, the southern Oregon tourism industry seemed headed for a strong year. Wildfire is an annual threat in the region, but things were calm until the ultimate wildcard — lightning — sparked dozens of blazes last week.

It took only a few days for the BLM to make its decision, and the move was deemed hasty by owners who say they can survive smoke, but not a shutdown.

“Everybody is in a state of shock,” said Cathy Schleining the owner of the Paradise Lodge. “Closure is a killer and I hope the BLM thinks long and hard because it’s impacting an enormous amount of businesses.”

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