Ellensburg Canyon Winery owner Gary Cox packed up a truck last week and parked in the driveway, ready to leave on a moment’s notice if the Evans Canyon Fire jumped the Yakima River.
Fortunately, that disaster scenario never happened, and like most everything else in the Yakima Canyon, the winery reopened on Wednesday. The fire started north of Naches on Aug. 31 and burned into Kittitas County and the canyon’s west side.
Both Cox and Joe Rotter, who co-owns Canyon River Ranch and Red’s Fly Shop, said the lack of physical damage didn’t stop the fire from harming their businesses.
“At (the Canyon River Grill) that was set to be our biggest week of the year,” Rotter said. “As a seasonal business, that was really impactful for us.”
Cox expressed similar sentiments about being closed during Labor Day weekend, the last big tourist opportunity of the year. Those closures will only add to a difficult spring and summer as COVID-19 restrictions limited visitors and opportunities to host events.
The Bureau of Land Management’s recreation sites in the river canyon closed as well, shortly before officials shut down State Route 821 through the canyon. BLM spokesperson Jeff Clark said all areas opened again Wednesday and campsites were once again available on a first-come, first-serve basis.
He’s not sure yet how the blaze affected the west side of the river. The Umtanum Creek footbridge remains closed. The bridge leads to the Yakima Skyline Trail and the Umtanum Creek trail. Some of the trail area looked burned from the parking lot on Wednesday.
Rotter said at least one owner from Red’s stayed on site throughout the fire, where they were prepared to “stand our ground.” He watched as the cliffs and railroad tracks became valuable buffers, protecting riparian habitat next to the river.
“Those cliffs may have saved us,” Rotter said. “Had it raged down to the river we would have been real nervous.”
Although the evacuation orders never rose from Level 2 to Level 3 (go now), Red’s Fly Shop canceled many of its reservations for classes, rafting trips and other activities. Rotter said other than a few guided trips moved elsewhere in the Yakima River, everything had to be either postponed or canceled, with refunds available for those unable to find another date.
The Canyon River Grill will open its doors again Thursday night, and Rotter is optimistic the damage to the canyon’s beautiful scenery visible from the restaurant won’t last long. In fact, he expects an even more impressive array of florescent green grass and wildflowers than usual when plant life returns next spring.
Clark said recreation areas should be back to normal with access for boaters or those floating the river. After a week of evacuations and cancelling reservations, the popular areas will be ready for what’s expected to be another warm, sunny weekend. Officials just ask everyone to be careful because of continuing high fire danger.