A wildfire that last year burned through the McKenzie River Valley may have, for the time, altered the area’s lush character, but its residents are still relying on people visiting.
The Holiday Farm Fire, one of several large blazes in Oregon that started around Labor Day, scorched about 173,000 acres in the valley, destroying many residents’ homes and livelihoods. The area, like many places in the state, has come to rely on its natural beauty to attract visitors for fishing, hunting, biking, hiking and other outdoor activities.
In 2019, more than 12,700 people worked in the outdoor recreation tourism industry in Lane County, jobs responsible for $492 million in compensations, according to a recent report from Travel Oregon. Thousands of those outdoor recreation workers are in the McKenzie River Valley and large parts of Lane and Douglas counties, where 2019 trip-related spending was about $407 million.
The towns and areas along Highway 126 are undergoing massive cleanup efforts, and rebuilding is just getting underway. For those there who rely on visitors’ dollars, the summer season is an important time, but they’re warning things aren’t quite the same.
“We need people to come up and visit and play and eat and stay, if they can find a place,” said Jonnie Helfrich, co-owner of A. Helfrich Outfitter, which offers guided fishing and rafting trips on the McKenzie River. “And just know it’ll take a while before it ever looks, at least portions of it, like it did before again. But Mother Nature will recover.”
A. Helfrich Outfitter isn’t suffering from fewer visitors because of the fire, she said, and the pandemic was far worse for business. But while she’s put information about the fire damage on their website, she’s also been telling clients directly what they should expect.
Her rafting trips on the McKenzie River always have varied in length and location, but now most trips include at least a partial cruise through the burn zone, where riverbanks are still burnt and largely bare. In the case of their most popular rafting trip, the 16-mile Hamlin-to-Helfrich float, “you’re going to see evidence of the fire from start to finish.”
Hosting visitors has become a major part of the McKenzie River Valley’s way of life, according to Andy Vobora, Travel Lane County’s vice president of stakeholder relations.
“Tourism is significant upriver. The community has really rallied around that,” he said. “They still want people to come up and experience the area.”
Many recreation businesses in the valley already have strong bookings for the summer, Vobora said, and annual events and festivals aim to draw as many guests as possible.
But visitor might struggle to find places to stay.
“We are stunningly full. We’ve never been busier,” said Kent Roberts, a manager at Harbick’s County Inn on McKenzie Highway near Rainbow. “It’s been absolutely crazy.”
Right now, Harbick’s County Inn is full up on weekdays largely with guests who are in the valley as part of the cleanup effort and with recreational travelers on weekends.
Some of the other lodgings in the area burned in the wildfire, but Harbick’s County Inn is just upriver of where the fire began before the wind drove flames downriver toward Blue River. Roberts said some of his guests had trouble finding a place to spend the night.
“I don’t care if it’s three weeks from now, you’d better get a reservation because we are that busy,” Roberts said. “We’re just barely edging into the season where I’m going to have to tell a bunch of these workers that I don’t have a place for them anymore because I have all these golf groups, hikers, bikers, etc. that are my summer clientele.”
Also spared from the flames was Tokatee Golf Club, where business has been good.
“We’d be even busier if we weren’t so far from town, and without the delays on the roads caused by cleanup,” said Dan King, the club’s head golf professional.
But King and Roberts said both are having trouble finding staff because there are limited housing options in the area. The Holiday Farm Fire destroyed more than 400 homes.
King said he expects limited lodging for travelers will affect his summer business, but he said many of his clients come back year after year. He expects they’ll make their annual pilgrimages to the McKenzie River Valley, but some might be shocked by the burn scars.
But farther upriver, where there are many outdoor attractions, evidence of the fire fades.
“It’s quite emotional the first time you go through there,” King said. “Their reaction when they come through is that it’s not the same. But then, once they get to Tokatee, it is.”
Helfrich said tourism will be important for recovery in the McKenzie River Valley, but many people there still are dealing with the pain of losing their homes. She asked that visitors be respectful by avoiding disaster tourism and leaving the burned homes alone.
“The people up there use the term ‘looky-loos’ for people who go up there just to gawk,” Helfrich said. “There are people who have come on people’s private property to closely gawk at what’s left — that really bothers the residents of the river.”