Last week, as a deadly fire continued to burn in Northern California’s Klamath National Forest, local fisherman Kenneth Brink counted dead fish in the river that had turned to the consistency of “chocolate milk.”
Mr. Brink, 45, a member of the Karuk tribe, lives in Happy Camp, a town of fewer than 900 people on the Klamath River in California’s Siskiyou County. The city is close to the border with Oregon. On Friday, he went about 20 miles upstream, where he made a gruesome discovery: thousands of dead suckers, salmon and trout, and lots of snow drifting up.
“It stinks,” Mr. Brink said. “If he was in the river, he’s dead.”
The McKinney fire started on July 29 and has burned through more than 60,000 acres, killing four people and becoming California’s largest wildfire this year. The fire also caused a massive fish kill in the Klamath River, which runs more than 250 miles from southern Oregon through northern California to the Pacific Ocean, local tribal leaders said.
Up to three inches of rain fell on areas burned by the fire Tuesday, sending a stream of charred soil, rock and fallen timber into the river, said Mike Lindbery, McKinney fire public information officer.
According to tribal representatives, the debris turned into a brown “sludge” plume that traveled down the river. The water quality monitoring station in the river reported zero dissolved oxygen levels on both Wednesday and Thursday. Marine life normally survives in water with about eight milligrams of oxygen per liter, but the oxygen level in that part of the river made it impossible for fish to survive.
“It just sterilizes the whole river,” said Craig Tucker, the tribe’s policy adviser. It is not known whether the debris flow will affect the Chinook salmon migration, which typically begins in the fall, he added.
The McKinney fire that prompted thousands to evacuate Sunday is 40 percent contained, officials said in a fire report. But public information officer Mr Lindbury warned that dangerous conditions in the coming days could reverse some of that progress.
Strong winds, low humidity and a “very unstable atmosphere” over the fire, he said, could create conditions where embers could fall beyond the fire line. There was also the possibility that a giant cloud, known as a pyrocumulonimbus, could develop and eventually break up, creating erratic winds, he said.
Development and dam construction had already impacted local tribal groups and threatened the Klamath River salmon population.
Mr. Brink, a fisherman, noted that all the fish killed had cultural significance for the local tribes living near the river. He said he was frustrated by the region’s history of forest management, which in the past prohibited indigenous tribes from conducting cleared burns to tame the landscape.
“It’s chaos,” he said of the fire’s impact on the Happy Camp community, which is about 35 miles from two blazes: the deadly McKinney fire and the Yeti fire, which has grown to about 8,000 acres.
She added: “I’m ready to cry.”