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Bear Creek salmon face uncertain post-fire future

Big fall chinook salmon that are heading up Bear Creek face an uncertain future as the Rogue Valley begins to grapple with the environmental effects of the Almeda fire.

Toxic runoff from the more than 3,000 structures destroyed in the September fire will find its way into Bear Creek, and it has the potential to harm the basin’s wild fall chinook run, state biologists say.

Toxic chemicals washing into the creek with the next rains could sicken or kill fall chinook now in the peak of their spawning run through downtown Medford and as high up the system as Ashland Creek, biologists say.

And perhaps even more importantly, the toxins flowing from burned areas around Talent and Phoenix could damage salmon eggs laid this month and set to incubate well into March.

“Right now, we just don’t know what the impacts will be,” says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist surveying Bear Creek to count spawning salmon.

“If there were 3,000 homes destroyed, that’s at least 3,000 bottles of bleach,” Samarin says. “We know there’s going to be impacts, but we really don’t know yet what those impacts are going to be.”

Possibilities run the gamut, Samarin says.

It could be that a single rain flushes the runoff downstream with limited impacts on fragile salmon eggs laid annually in gravel runs from Central Point to Ashland, Samarin says.

Or the toxins could settle into the system and blanket the egg nests, he says.

“What will happen? Just don’t know,” Samarin says. “But we’ll find out.”

Spotting wild fall chinook as long as a man’s leg is an annual event for many people living in the Bear Creek Valley, despite the creek having some of the poorest water quality of Oregon’s urban streams. Bear Creek is listed as unhealthy for sediment loads, pH levels, turbidity, temperature and oxygen levels, yet each year hundreds of wild fall chinook, coho salmon, summer steelhead and winter steelhead make it back to spawn annually.

Their offspring live desperate lives while they eke out their freshwater lifecycle dodging hot water in summer and roiled flows during winter freshets before heading to the ocean as smolts to bulk up on krill and other natural foods before returning as behemoths.

The peak of the upstream run in Bear Creek typically is this week, says Jim Hutchins, a naturalist who has counted spawning chinook here for 30 years.

Hutchins earlier this week counted 57 chinook in the creek during a 24-hour period in downtown Medford, where the spawning fish are visible from several bridges.

“They’re beautiful,” Hutchins says. “You can stand there and see them. It’s awesome.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

ODFW biologist Hope Gurzell, and ODFW biologist Pete Samarin take a fall chinook salmon survey in Bear Creek at U.S. Cellular Community Park on Friday. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)