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In this Sept. 5, 2018, photo released by the U.S. Forest Service, a truck drives next to the Delta Fire burning on Interstate 5 near Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Calif. A major interstate that connects California and Oregon reopened Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, after a wildfire roared along the roadway and forced a six-day closure while burned trees and charred vehicles were removed. One lane in each direction of Interstate 5 near the Oregon border was reopened with restrictions and warnings of slow traffic, California Department of Transportation spokeswoman Denise Yergenson said. (Ben Newburn/U.S. Forest Service via AP)

Closure took bite out of business

Weeks of smoke was bad enough for Southern Oregon visitor-serving businesses, but then along came the big Delta Fire on both sides of Interstate 5 about 80 miles south of Ashland, burning some vehicles and blocking a lot of tourist traffic to and from the Rogue Valley. About 40 miles of I-5 was closed shortly after the fire broke out Wednesday afternoon and didn’t reopen until Monday morning.

Big impact? You bet, says Don Anway, chief financial officer of Ashland Hills Hotel, snuggled up to Ashland’s Exit 14. The hotel experienced at least a 10 percent drop in business, causing a cut in employee hours at the usual height of the season.

“The freeway is a major contributor to feeding us overnight guests in Southern Oregon and closure started to affect us immediately,” says Anway. “We had whole groups cancel the next morning because of inconvenient detours.

“It wasn’t all about the freeway. Before that, we had previously loyal guests who didn’t know if was going to be a clear or smoky day and they would leave after a day or two. Then the freeway closure added to it greatly. They didn’t want to risk getting stuck on the freeway.

“Shakespeare has closed a tremendous amount of shows and they’re a primary feeder for us and tourism,” says Anway, “as is the great outdoors, but many aren’t able to hike, bike and raft, so people are choosing to do other things.”

CalTrans reopened one lane each way Monday, but no trucks carrying loads of logs or hay or other flammables were allowed on between Redding and Mount Shasta City.

Terrifying phone videos taken in the early hours of the ride showing freeway hillsides exploding in flame and wreathing the freeway in thick smoke dotted Facebook and kept many more people home.

Nico Cruz, manager at Caldera Restaurant & Brewery, another bustling business by the South Ashland exit (with outside view dining), says, “Yeah, absolutely it’s impacted us. It hasn’t been very busy at all, between the freeway closure and the smoke. It’s down 15 percent. We haven’t had any layoffs, though. The opening of the freeway makes me feel very happy.”

Eric Chaddock, manager of Shop’n Kart on Highway 66, a quarter mile from exit 14, says the closure hasn’t affected business much, but it’s a freeway closure that does not fill his big parking lot with trucks, as usually happens when blizzards close the 5.

The freeway closure has had its ups and downs for Callahan’s Lodge & Restaurant beside the Mount Ashland exit, because some people turn around while others get a room, dine and relax, says owner Donna Bergquist.

“A good amount of people just don’t know about closures and want to stop and gather their wits. We had a couple good days over the (Labor Day) weekend when it cleared, then came back-to-school, but we should be back in our usual groove soon. It’s definitely off from last summer, but often, because we’re at 4,000 feet, we’re not in the hole down there and it’s less smoky.”

ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum ironically reports higher attendance from out-of-state visitors over the past weekend — 25 percent versus the 16 percent from a year ago at the same period, almost all from the I-5 corridor north of Mount Shasta, says Executive Director Dan Ruby.

“We saw something different during August,” Ruby said. “There were fewer tourists than normal because they were avoiding Ashland altogether due to smoke, and a big increase in new visitors from surrounding areas that were finding new things to do indoors.”

As of mid-day Monday, the 45,000-acre Delta blaze, mostly burning west of the freeway, is only 5 percent contained, while the adjacent and earlier 46,000 acre Hirz fire, east of the freeway, is 95 percent contained.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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