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Daily Tidings file photo
OSF's Elizabethan Theatre seats 1,200 , but wildfire smoke has emptied the theater several times this season.

Smoked out: Fires put the heat on tourism

Wildfire smoke isn’t necessarily canceling fun in Southern Oregon, but it is forcing organizations that are dependent on tourist dollars to scramble for other options.

About 100,000 acres in Josephine and Jackson counties have already burned in an early fire season, filling much of the Rogue Valley with smoke. Ashland, Medford and surrounding cities have seen their air quality range from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “hazardous” levels. Sunday night, the air quality in both Medford and Ashland moved into “hazardous” territory.

Ashland has more typically been below that level, but in recent days has regularly seen an Air Quality Index number come in between 150 and 200, considered “unhealthy.” The air registered in that “unhealthy” category throughout the day Tuesday.

The smoke has chased outdoor theater and entertainment events inside or forced cancellations, which also come at high price tags. Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival has canceled at least one performance of each of its three outdoor plays this season: “Romeo and Juliet,” “The Book of Will” and “Love’s Labor’s Lost.” In addition to eight total cancellations, three performances have been moved to indoor venues, including Ashland High School’s auditorium, said spokeswoman Julie Cortez.

Cortez said OSF has already canceled more shows this year than it did in all of 2017, adding that these are the first two years in a row that the festival has had to cancel multiple performances because of smoke.

“We are a nonprofit theater company, and so this is serious,” she said. “We depend very much on ticket revenue.”

A canceled show translates to a loss upwards of $50,000, she said, which doesn’t account for concessions and other sales losses.

Company leaders meet every morning to decide whether an outdoor performance needs to relocate to Ashland High School. If the decision is made, ticket holders are alerted via email and a banner on the OSF website. The box office at AHS opens at 7 p.m. and tickets for that evening’s performance at an OSF theater can be exchanged there for the relocated performance, on a first-come, first-served basis.

The space downgrade is sizable: The Elizabethan Theatre seats about 1,200, while the high school’s Mountain Avenue Theater seats 412.

OSF’s free Green Shows, typically held at 6:45 p.m. six nights a week on the Courtyard Stage, are being moved indoors to the Black Swan theater when air quality worsens.

Predicted air quality conditions can change dramatically in a few hours, and organizations walk a fine line between an expensive, potentially unnecessary cancellation and giving customers a too-late warning.

Cortez said with all the outdoor shows now ready to perform in the high school auditorium, the possibility of a show relocation will continue to be a daily guessing game.

“We just have to see where the winds take us this week,” she said.

Other Southern Oregon businesses and organizations catering to tourists during a limited season said they are watching profits dissipate like so many smoke fumes as fires persist.

Orange Torpedo Trips in Merlin, a whitewater rafting and kayaking trip company, hasn’t been able to run single- or multi-day trips down the Rogue River near Hellgate Canyon since a closure was issued July 29.

Scott DeBo, operations manager, said that Rogue River trips are being rerouted to other routes the company runs on the North Umpqua River or the Nugget Falls area of the Rogue near Gold Hill.

Still, he said, “you’re really unable to recover from the lost revenues. We have such a short window. Our business is a seasonal business.”

In some cases, DeBo said, people’s expectations of poor weather conditions can lead to preemptive cancellations. He said customers have canceled multi-day trips that could have been relocated, due to fears about the fire and smoke.

He estimated that business from single-day trips had taken a 25 percent hit as a direct or indirect consequence of the Taylor Creek fire and the Garner complex. A decline in bookings translates quickly to less work for employees in its Oregon office (the company also runs trips in Idaho).

“We are still here and we appreciate the business,” DeBo said. “We’re trying to hold our ground.”

Britt Festivals has moved orchestra rehearsals and some performances from its hillside Britt Pavilion amphitheater in Jacksonville to the North Medford High School auditorium. The festival also has been forced to move ancillary performances to an elementary school in Medford and two locations in Ashland.

Its Aug. 10 and 11 orchestra concerts are so far scheduled to be held at the Britt Pavilion.

Reach reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

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