Behind the Desk… is a series that interviews people who support and work in the climbing industry, and particularly those people who own and manage facilities. This week’s installment is a bit unique. Like others, we—at CBJ—have been following the news about the destructive fires out West. And we know that climbing communities in states like California, Oregon and elsewhere are just some of the many communities that are being displaced, discouraged or otherwise harmed by the resulting fire destruction. So, we wanted to reach out to an owner of a climbing gym that is being impacted by a fire to learn more details, gain a first-hand account, and hear how those in a given climbing community are doing. Matt Lambert, owner of Rogue Rock Gym, was kind enough to chat with us about all that in this edition of Behind the Desk while the fire damage and devastation sadly continues.
Name: Matt Lambert
Title: Owner, Rogue Rock Gym
Location: Medford, OR
CBJ: Can you tell me specifically about the fire in your area?
LAMBERT: I actually live right near where a fire started on Almeda Street. Ironically, Almeda is fine, as the fierce winds blew the fire in the opposite direction. It was a 100-year-wind event with 40-mile-per-hour winds. The fire ran 10 miles northwest and ran within a few blocks from Rogue Rock Gym, destroying two towns, thousands of homes, and over 100 businesses along the way. It was unstoppable, and a devastating tragedy. It was a long sleepless night listening to the police and fire department scanners, wondering if my rock gym would burn or be spared. Fortunately, the fire department established a hard line one block from our gym in order to prevent the fire from advancing into the city of Medford.
At about 3:00 am, power at the gym came on and I could see our security cameras that she was still standing. It was a Hallelujah moment! We had to remain closed for a full week because the police had shut down access to the entire area surrounding the gym. There were active fires spotting up, downed power lines, and they were trying to prevent looters from going into the abandoned homes and businesses. We were just able to open yesterday, and they are just starting to let residents back into the area; sadly many of them are returning to piles of ashes and rubble.
CBJ: I saw on Instagram Rogue Rock Gym stated, “Anyone who was displaced by the Almeda Fire is welcome to use our showers and WiFi and get out of the smoke.” That is a wonderful gesture. Where did that idea come from?
LAMBERT: There has been a huge outpouring of support from the community to help those families displaced by the fires. Donation centers have been established all over town. Many local businesses are opening their doors to displaced fire victims, as many people have nowhere to go, and the outdoor air quality is extremely hazardous.
We made the offer on our social media to participate in the community relief effort. We are planning a fundraising event at the gym in the near future. Of course, with Covid-19 restrictions, hosting “events” is a bit tricky, so we are needing to get creative. We have several gym members who lost everything in the fires. Other members have already stepped up to offer them replacement climbing gear. Another thing we are going to do to support the relief effort is donate all new member initiation fees to a fund set up through our local credit union—who is matching all donations.
CBJ: The fires have been physically destructive—horrifically and tragically so. What has it been like mentally amid all this?
LAMBERT: Everyone in the Rogue Valley area has been on high alert for a week now, ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice. People’s stress levels are extremely high. Everyone knows someone who has lost everything. It is mentally and emotionally draining for the entire community. We were eager to get the gym back open as soon as possible because so many people use the gym not only for physical fitness, but for their own mental health. Climbing is an amazing stress-reliever that can help everyone get through hard times. We are happy to still be able to provide that space for people to relieve stress when the options for exercising outdoors are extremely limited due to the poor air quality.
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Time for a bit of good news! We have been getting a lot of inquiries as to whether the gym is ok, and would like to thank everyone for your concern and support. Although it’s hard to feel happy with so much devastation around us, we are relieved to report that the gym survived the fire unscathed! Our entire staff is safe and accounted for, and while we all still have our homes…many of our friends do not. We’d like to extend our heartfelt sympathy to anyone who is suffering due to the tragic Almeda Fire. We will rally as a community to support those who lost everything. We’d also like to thank our first responders, Fire and Police who continue to keep us safe. They held the line at South Stage Road and saved our gym and South Medford. Our gratitude is eternal. ❤️🙏 PSA-the entire area is shut down. The gym will remain closed until authorities open HWY 99. We hope to see you as soon as it’s safe to reopen.
CBJ: And specifically about the air quality: How is Rogue Rock Gym dealing with the issue of hazardous air as a result of the fire?
LAMBERT: Hazardous air quality is something we regularly deal with in Southern Oregon this time of year during the wildfire season, more so in the last few years. Our gym is at a disadvantage because our HVAC system is made up of Swamp Coolers which pump air from outside into the gym. Right now we can’t use them, or the entire gym becomes filled with smoke, but luckily the temperatures have dropped down to the low 80s making climbing with no AC bearable.
We have also built our own version of “chalk eaters” for the gym and put filters in them rated for smoke particulates. Running three of these units in the gym helps improve the air quality considerably. Yesterday at our re-opening we had 70 climbers in the gym throughout the day. It feels great to welcome the community back. For many of our members Rogue Rock Gym is like a second home, a sanctuary, a playground, a club house of sorts where they connect with their friends and neighbors.
We are eternally grateful to our local first responders, police and fire who have worked tirelessly to protect our town. It is through their hard work that our gym is still standing. Our deepest condolences go out to everyone affected by the Almeda Fire in Ashland, Talent, and Phoenix.
Share your story
Are you leading a climbing gym or brand through this unprecedented period? Or, do you work in the industry and have a story that others could benefit from hearing? If so, please contact us and tell us about it.
John Burgman has been writing about climbing for nearly a decade. He is a Fulbright journalism grant recipient, a former magazine editor at Outdoor Life, and the author of two books. He holds a master’s degree from New York University and bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. In addition to writing, he coaches a youth bouldering team.