Tens of thousands of fish dead after California wildfire washes debris into river
Nearby McKinney Fire contaminated the river, plummeting oxygen levels in the water
Tens of thousands of fish are dead in California's Klamath River after ash, mud and other debris from the McKinney Fire washed into the water, contaminating it.
It's a sight that deeply saddens Kenneth Brink, a member of the Karuk Tribe and field supervisor for its fisheries.
"It is vile. So sad," he told As It Happens guest host Paul Hunter. "That's our fish down there, just rotting."
The fish kill was a blow for the Karuk and Yurok tribes — both Indigenous peoples based in California — who have been fighting for years to protect fragile populations of salmon in the Klamath River.
"When I go down there, it looks like something out of a war zone, you know? Like someone … blew up the whole river," said Brink.
"You see the movies where they [use] dynamite and all the fish come bubbling up, floating. That's what it looks like — they're just all floating there dead."
The McKinney Fire, which began on July 29, has so far burned more than 233 square kilometres in the Klamath National Forest, killing four people in the hamlet of Klamath River and reducing many homes and businesses to ash.
Scientists have said climate change has made the West warmer and drier over the last three decades and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. Across the American West, a 22-year megadrought deepened so much in 2021 that the region is now in the driest spell in at least 1,200 years.
"People perished in this fire just trying to escape — that's how crazy it was," said Brink. "And right in the midst of all this chaos, here comes this huge, huge thunder- [and] rainstorm and gully-washes the tributaries in a certain area."
The flash flood then created a massive debris flow that washed into the river, creating what Brink describes as a "biological event" where things like algae started to grow quickly, blocking out the sun for anything underwater. Between that and the mud, Brink says that the dissolved oxygen level in the river "crashed" to zero for two consecutive nights.
"When you have zero oxygen in the river, nothing lives in that section. Nothing," said Brink. "I saw steelheads; I saw salmon; I saw crawdads. There were lampreys. Everything was just laying there dead."
Brink says the fish pooled by the hundreds in "certain collecting areas like back eddies and still water."
As of Tuesday, they've started to sink back down into the river as their air bladders burst and the river recedes. Despite this, it's all too much, even for nearby predators.
"[It's] even more than all the vultures and bears and stuff can eat right now. And it's going to rot because there's too much at one time," Brink said.
Mother Nature has a way of taking care of herself, as long as we don't keep messing it up.- Kenneth Brink
Brink said the river and its fish carry a cultural significance to his people, the Karuk Tribe.
"If you really understand this sucker — like people that live here do — they're our elders," said Brink. "These fish, they're like 30 years old. They clean our river … they eat the algae. Their little mouths are like scrubbers. They clean all the rocks."
"So maybe the sucker doesn't have [a] commercial market or dollar signs like the salmon, but it plays a key part into our ecosystem."
The massive fish kill will also have a compounding effect on the surrounding ecosystem, Brink said. Ospreys, for example, eat suckerfish as one of its main foods; they, too, will suffer, he explained.
It has been devastating for Brink's community, too.
"Imagine the kids who've seen this, how sad it is to them," he said. "Anybody that could smell or see those fish is going to remember it forever."
This isn't the first time this has happened. In 2002, more than 34,000 fish — mostly adult fall Chinook salmon — died in the Klamath River, in what was then believed to be the largest observed salmon kill.
A 2004 report from the California State Water Resources Control Board concluded that the likely cause was a low flow from the Iron Gate Dam, which had been diverting water to nearby farmlands.
Now, after years of negotiations, those dams on the lower river are on track to be removed next year, in an attempt to help the fish recover. It would be the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history, according to The Associated Press.
"That's going to restore hundreds of miles of pristine, historic habitat to these fish that they've been cut off [from] for so long," he said. "And that feat alone could be the biggest restoration project in the history of the United States."
Brink says the action can't end there. He stressed the importance of upslope management for fisheries, which means managing fish habitats with the wider geography in mind, including the mountains, oceans and rivers, as well as the fish population.
He also hopes that the Karuk Tribe will once again be allowed to conduct controlled burns in the nearby area — something he says the fire department currently forbids them from doing.
Despite the work ahead, Brink was confident that the river — and its fish — would recover.
"Mother Nature has a way of taking care of herself, as long as we don't keep messing it up."
Written and produced by Aloysius Wong, with files from The Associated Press.