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Escaping fire

Manager Dan Meyer and a fleet of fish-liberation trucks picked through the rubble of what once was Oregon’s Rock Creek Hatchery on the upper North Umpqua River.

The Archie Creek fire had raged through the 95-year-old state facility earlier that week, killing 400,000 juvenile steelhead and salmon, scorching the pond’s wooden structures down to the water.

“It was like a bomb went off,” Meyer recalls. “The ground was down to mineral.”

But in one pond about 700 spring chinook salmon and summer steelhead brood fish — those kept on hand for spawning the next generation of Umpqua hatchery fish — had somehow survived.

In the course of a few hours, crews captured the surviving brood and placed them in seven trucks that hauled the salmon and steelhead to safety, saving this year’s chinook program destined to fuel Umpqua fisheries later this decade.

“We had the calvary come in, and they took all our brood fish to Cole Rivers,” Meyer says. “That’s the only thing that really survived.”

The Rock Creek Hatchery ordeal was the largest and most severe wildfire damage sustained by Oregon’s hatchery program during this month’s wildfires.

Closer to home, Cole Rivers Hatchery on the upper Rogue was untouched by flames from the South Obenchain fire that led authorities to put hatchery workers on alert for a possible evacuation that never came.

Cole Rivers Hatchery Manager Dave Pease already had purged 653,255 spring chinook salmon smolts from the hatchery into the upper Rogue River just in case South Obenchain fire reached the hatchery.

So they made room for Meyer’s crew and the Rock Creek chinook, some of which were spawned here Friday.

In all, Meyer expects the Umpqua’s annual target of 440,000 fertilized eggs to be reached, but at a foreign facility one big drainage away.

It’s a bittersweet offer of help from the Cole Rivers crew, who are relieved they side-stepped disaster and were able to help their fellow fish-tending brethren in their times of need.

“We don’t necessarily work together, but we work for the same company and do the same thing, so we really feel for them,” Pease says. “So it’s a kick in the groin.”

Rock Creek and Cole Rivers hatcheries were two of six state-managed hatcheries to face fire evacuations and damage.

At the Klamath Hatchery, the Two Four Two fire damaged several hatchery buildings and killed a estimated 50,000 triploid brown trout destined for Diamond Lake, Lake of the Woods and elsewhere in 2021.

The brown trout eggs come from California, and ODFW estimates it will be 2022 before this program of sterilized brown trout is back to full production.

At Diamond Lake, brown trout and hybrid tiger trout are used to keep down any resurgence of tui chubs that in the past have crashed the lake’s rainbow trout fishery. However, the lake’s complement of stocked fingerling rainbow trout is expected to be unfazed for next year.

On the McKenzie River, ODFW staff had to release nearly 1.16 million yearling spring chinook, summer steelhead and rainbow trout out of Leaburg Hatchery prior to evacuation early Sept. 8. However, an unknown number of spring chinook, fall chinook and summer steelhead rearing there and bound for the Umpqua Basin died after the hatchery’s water system failed.

Others impacted by fires were the Minto fish facility near Gates, the Marion Forks Hatchery and the Clackamas and Eagle Creek hatcheries in the Clackamas Basin, a sub-basin of the Columbia River.

If, when and how damaged hatcheries will be rebuilt or repaired is unknown at present, ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy says.

ODFW has filed insurance claims for damage at the Rock Creek and Klamath hatcheries through the state Department of Administrative Services, Dennehy says.

All long-term planning for repairing and replacing these facilities and funding for them has yet to begin, Dennehy says. Any money for the work must be approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Kate Brown, and no timetable for that has been determined, Dennehy says.

Pease’s crews at Cole Rivers were able to release more than 202,000 fall chinook smolts into the Coquille River a week early, just to be safe.

The early release of spring chinook smolts into the Rogue isn’t expected to lead to any changes in the adult returns because they were within a week of the planned release, Pease says.

So nothing was lost at Cole Rivers, “other than sleep,” Pease says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.

Spring chinook salmon are captured amid wildfire conditions at Rock Creek Hatchery on the North Umpqua River in Southern Oregon. Photo by Matt Hill