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Sunday, August 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports

Heat, wildfires impact play at area golf courses

Smoke was so thick in Colville on certain days, Dominion Meadows golf pro Andy Hite couldn’t see the cart shed located about 30 yards away.

Hite didn’t need perfect vision to notice golfers were avoiding the haze-shrouded course most of August. Dominion Meadows is down about 1,500 rounds, thankfully offset by brisk season-pass sales.

Hite isn’t complaining. He understands the bigger picture and the devastation caused by wildfires.

“People were scared to go outside without masks. Even if you could play golf you wouldn’t because of the fear of smoke,” Hite said. “This year we really got a lesson on how important (firefighters) are and how beneficial they are to our area. It’s quite a community thing to see how it all functioned. Our appreciation is overwhelming.”

About 25 miles south, customers phoned the Chewelah pro shop daily to check on playing conditions.

“If you said it was pretty smoky they canceled their times,” pro Jason Pitt said. “I would say it probably impacted us about 30 percent the last few weeks. Two out of three were still playing.”

It has been a weather year like no other for the golf industry. Record heat, record dry conditions and record fires, the latter producing smoke that hung in the August air until last weekend’s storm brought clearer skies.

“We were thankful for the good weather (early), then cursing the good weather because it was so hot, then the smoke,” University of Idaho Golf Course assistant pro David Nuhn said. “We’re like the average golfer, we’re never satisfied.”

The smoke’s biggest impact on tee sheets was probably at courses north of Spokane and south in Pullman-Moscow and Lewiston-Clarkston. The UI course closed one day when air quality was in the unhealthy range.

“There were maybe three or four really distinct days where I was nervous,” Nuhn said. “I told my wife, let’s keep the kids inside. We were concerned for our employees on the grounds crew. You don’t want to put them at risk.”

The reduced number of golfers cut into the sales of food, beverages, apparel, equipment and cart rentals.

“When people aren’t coming through the door it affects everything,” Pitt said. “We had a couple days where we had falling ash, and the older boys playing with me said it was a little like Mount St. Helens.”

According to the Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency website, there have been 57 days in the yellow/moderate range, considered acceptable air quality but possibly bothersome to some; eight days in the orange/unhealthy range for sensitive groups; and five days in the red/unhealthy for everyone.

“It really hasn’t hampered us too much,” said Downriver pro Steve Conner, noting August rounds were down by 200 compared to August 2014. “I think it was maybe a week ago last Friday when it really blanketed us in Spokane. That was a real tough day, but we still had more people out playing than I would have expected.”

Conner is from Omak in north central Washington, which has been hit hard by fires the last two summers. His mom has been evacuated twice.

“The fire got within a driver of her house,” Conner said. “We lived close to the (Okanagan Valley) course and that was part of the barrier. It’s sad. There’s not much left to burn over there.”

Dominion Meadows is near the airport, where three helicopters and a couple of airplanes have been assisting firefighting efforts. Spokane Community College’s rural learning center became home to incident command for the Colville Complex fires. One of Dominion Meadows’ members works for the Forest Service and told Hite that 168 fires had been extinguished to date.

Dominion Meadows has staged one benefit tournament for those impacted by wildfires and is planning another.

“It’s been a very unusual year,” Hite said. “We were way ahead (for revenue) but that nest egg went away. We’re about 3-5 degrees higher than Spokane, so when it was in the 100s our play really dropped in June and everyone went to the lake.

“In July, the fires started popping up and that ran everyone off. Even now it’s beautiful out, but I think they’ve forgotten where the course is at.”

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