A gripping video details how ODFW crews attempted to save salmon, steelhead and trout at a McKenzie River hatchery earlier this week after its water source was drained and a massive fire burned towards it.
The latest fire maps show the Leaburg Hatchery is inside the heat perimeter of the 32,000-plus-acre Holiday Farm Fire, which like so many in Western Oregon the last two days has blown up under strong easterly winds, torching communities, forests and possibly the state hatchery and operators’ houses there.
“Not feeling very good that our houses and potentially the facility will be left standing when we get back there,” narrates manager Erik Withalm in a video initially posted to his Erik The Fish Nerd YouTube channel yesterday and which has since been made private.
Fire conditions remain volatile along the entire West Coast, with red flag warnings literally stretching from the Canadian border to the Mexican border at this hour, and certainly the fate of one hatchery means little measured against the unfolding human toll. It’s absolutely heartwrenching to see the fire maps metastasize and even watch as towns burn.
With hot, dry weather continuing and no chance of rain until next week, nationalforest and BLM managers are shutting some lands down to recreational access.
Leaburg Hatchery is one of seven in Oregon, primarily west of the Cascades, that ODFW has evacuated due to the fires or fire danger.
“As of Sept. 9 about 10 a.m., in western Oregon, Marion Forks, Minto, McKenzie, Leaburg, Salmon River, Rock Creek hatcheries have been evacuated,” said spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy. “Klamath Hatchery in eastern Oregon (Chiloquin) has also been evacuated. No staff left on site.”
“Clackamas Hatchery was evacuated for awhile but staff were able to return,” she added.
A photo tweeted this morning appears to show flames right above Leaburg Hatchery.
In Withalm’s video, he prefaces the operation that saw he and others drive under escort up the McKenzie to the hatchery to release the fish after Leaburg Dam managers were forced to drain Leaburg Lake, which provides water to the facility’s rearing ponds.
Without fresh water the trout, steelhead and Chinook reared there would otherwise die.
As the caravan nears the hatchery the sky dims to a deep dark orange until it’s nearly “pitch black.”
The video captures Withalm’s narration in the darkness as he pulls weir bars and comments on the conditions.
“Look at all the debris in the ponds, holy moly,” he says, adding, “There is no water getting to the ponds.”
The video lasts about 12-15 minutes and near the end Withalm races alongside the caravan of vehicles, making sure everyone is accounted for and then coordinates with the convoy leader.
“That’s everybody. OK, we’re out of here,” he says. “We got as many fish as we can out. The fire’s just over the hillside over there. No, not over the hillside, on the hillside.”
Leaburg Hatchery’s trial by fire follows its reprieve last year after a temporary funding fix was found to prevent its closure following changes instituted by the Corps of Engineers, which operates two upstream dams on the McKenzie.
ODFW’s Dennehy says she “wouldn’t count on a lot of information about fish loss until the immediate emergency has passed.”
In September 2017 Leaburg found itself home to 1 million coho rescued from Cascade Hatchery in the Columbia Gorge due to the Eagle Creek Fire.