As flames from the Eagle Creek Fire pushed closer to the Columbia River, Oregon officials had a quick decision to make.
The Fish and Wildlife hatcheries in the fire’s path housed six million fish, mostly chinook and coho salmon and steelhead.
And some of those fish were in trouble.
“Their water source, which at the time was Tanner Creek at Bonneville Hatchery, was literally engulfed in flames. The hatchery intake on the creek got clogged up, and we weren’t able to get water to the fish,” said Ken Loffink, a spokesman for ODFW.
To keep them from dying in the hatchery, officials released 400,000 fall chinook on Monday. They released another 206,000 on Tuesday.
The fire affected the Bonneville, Oxbow, and Cascade hatcheries in the Columbia River Gorge. Only the Bonneville hatchery had to release fish.
While the fire has headed away from the hatcheries, Loffink said they’re continuing to keep a close eye on the situation.
“Anything can happen,” Loffink said. “The ability to take care of fish on site is reduced to almost nothing. If nothing else happens, the fish can certainly survive and be on their own for a long period of time. (Without all the staff) the ability to respond to other emergencies, if there's water issues — things happen — and that’s the risk going forward.”
Right now, only a handful of employees are helping monitor dissolved oxygen, water flows and temperatures for the remaining fish. Originally 26 employees had to be evacuated.
Loffink said it’s possible more employees will be able to return to the hatcheries Wednesday night. That’s when they’ll start to assess the cleanup situation.
Firefighters dropped foam on some of the hatchery buildings and Tuesday night lit a backfire above the Cascade Hatchery. They lit a second backfire Wednesday morning to reduce fuels at the Oxbow Hatchery.
So far no buildings have been damaged. The remaining fish appear to be okay.
“We think everything’s going to be fine,” Loffink said.
Fish at the Bonneville Hatchery are on well water. The Oxbow Hatchery is without power, but it has a backup generator that can last for up to a week — its water intake doesn’t need power or a water pump.
Loffink said Mother Nature has gotten in the way of hatchery plans before, like extreme freezing temperatures in Eastern Oregon. He wasn’t sure if a fire has ever threatened hatcheries like this.
“In this case, it was an on-the-spot emergency decision. The thought was that if we don’t get the fish out they’re going to die in the hatchery,” he said.
Now they’re on their own — earlier than planned. One group of salmon had been scheduled for release in October. The other in March.
The October group is fairly close to the size they’d be when they would have been let out. Loffink said they’re about 4- to 5-inches long.
“The advantages (of keeping the fish in the hatchery) up until that release date is it’s a controlled environment. We feed them. We can keep them healthy. They’re not being preyed upon. It just maximizes survival up until the point of release,” Loffink said.
Another advantage with that extra month: the fish would have headed out to sea during natural migration patterns. That usually happens after the first fall rains slightly bump up river flows.
But Loffink said they think the fish will be OK.
“It’s likely that their survival could be just the same as it was keeping them for that extra month,” he said. “They’re going to be similar size and doing similar things to what some of the naturally-spawned fish are going to be doing in the creeks.”