MEDFORD, Ore. — Wildfires will displace both hunters and the hunted this fall as burning forests and backwoods public-safety closures push men and beasts into new haunts.
Big-game animals such as deer and elk do fine in the face of wildfire, often showing uncanny abilities to stay ahead of encroaching flames or finding green oases amid a fire’s roar. And while deer and elk won’t be returning to burned areas around Prospect and Union Creek anytime soon, they likely will feel at home in the smoky areas immediately around wildfires and closed areas, biologists say.
“While they seem to know how to avoid the fires, we have no indication that they avoid smoke,” says Mark Vargas, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Rogue District wildlife biologist.
“We’ve had many instances where there’s a herd of elk a half-mile from a fire and smoke so thick you can’t breathe,” he says. “And there are the elk, foraging. It just doesn’t alter their behavior.”
So add a N95 smoke mask to your daypack essentials this fall, because successful deer and elk hunters likely will find themselves in precisely the smoky conditions they and other Southern Oregonians have been trying to avoid in town for the past two months.
“I wouldn’t give up on smoky areas,” Vargas says. “You can’t avoid it. There’s smoke everywhere.”
With more than 300,000 acres of wildfire area in southwest Oregon alone, area closures in the region are unprecedented. The entire Sky Lakes and Rogue-Umpqua Divide wilderness areas are closed to the public for the first time. Other fires have caused the public to be forced out of huge swaths of land in the Prospect and Union Creek areas, while lower elevations continue to see public-access closures on private industrial lands.
The Chetco Bar fire based largely in Curry County covers more than 190,000 acres, while the Miller Complex of fires in the Applegate Valley covers more than 36,000 acres.
While the closed wilderness areas will displace hundreds of hunters who look to get away from crowds, perhaps the most hunters will be impacted by the nearly 64,000 acres in the High Cascades Complex of fires.
Because many hunters will be forced out of their sometimes decades-old comfort zones, they will have to try new terrain to get their hunts in this fall.
“I know it can be an inconvenience,” Vargas says. “But there are usually plenty of areas to hunt.
“This is an opportunity to try out new areas,” Vargas says. “I am.”
For four decades the Vargas family has hunted blacktails in the Dixon Unit between Union Creek and Prospect. With his traditional hunting area and deer camp now off limits, Vargas will be looking to hunt new lands.
Recent rains and even high-elevation snow has given hunters hope that nature will quell these lightning-ignited blazes and return public access to closed areas – particularly wilderness areas – if not for the start of the general elk season three weeks from now, then at least for the second half of the general buck deer season for rifle hunters.
But those could be false hopes.
“There have been no inclinations to even discuss that,” says Chamise Kramer, the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest’s spokeswoman.
“The closures aren’t just about active fire, but also where equipment and firefighters are,” Kramer says. “There are a lot of factors that come into play, a lot more than just weather and active fire.”
Until then, it’s smoke masks and Visine while plying the smoky woods for buck and bulls.
“Hopefully the weather cooperates and they open it,” Vargas says. “If not, we’ll be in the smoke.”