While forests burned and the air filled with smoke this summer, my colleagues at Winthrop National Fish Hatchery prepared to evacuate their homes. Yet even while they packed essentials into their vehicles, they stayed focused on fish, making plans for what to do if the hatchery itself had to be evacuated.
Staff had to stay on top of changes in water flow and quality, and impacts to the health of the fish. Thick smoke made for poor outdoor working conditions. During the worst air quality times, only the most critical outside jobs, like feeding fish and cleaning raceways, were done, while wearing N95 masks. The crew spent a lot of time on fire preventive grounds maintenance: weed and debris removal around buildings, lawn watering, and mowing.
And that turns out to be one of the best moves any property owner can make. It is abundantly clear that homeowners need to do their own work to make their property safer. That includes things like replacing roofs and siding with fire-resistant materials, moving combustibles away from houses, and clearing brush and debris.
Many of the buildings at the hatchery date back to 1942, when the facility opened. They are made of concrete and covered with metal roofing. The concrete raceways full of water and young fish are an additional barrier to burning. The historic houses, clustered under trees closer to the road, have vinyl siding and metal roofs. Watering the lawns around them helps add protection.
Fire danger to land dwellers and property is obvious. But how are animals living in water affected over time?
The ash that falls from the smoke-choked sky is alkaline, which can raise the pH of water. A pH increase would certainly impact the aquatic insects and other small-sized life in the water that ultimately feed fish, rippling up the food chain. Fish raised at hatcheries are not solely dependent on insects for feed, but they are affected by other changes.
Burning releases nutrients like phosphorous and nitrogen from plants, leaving nutrient-rich ash behind. When this extra boost of fertilizer washes into streams and lakes, it can cause tiny algae plants in the water to reproduce in abundance. An overabundance of algae could decrease oxygen levels in the water when the algae begins to die off.
Another source of nutrients comes from fire retardants, often dumped onto fires from airplanes. Most fire retardants are made of ammonia-based fertilizer mixed with clay and red coloring. Ammonia is toxic to fish, especially very young fish. A 300-foot buffer is recommended to keep fire retardant away from rivers and streams.
A really hot fire burning lots of plant materials creates gases that condense to form a waxy coating on top of the soil, which increases runoff, preventing rain from soaking in. Rain can help dampen fires, but it also washes ash, destabilized soil and debris into rivers. This material can clog up intakes at municipal water facilities and hatcheries.
Thanks to hard work by firefighters, the two fires (Cedar Creek and Cub Creek) that threatened the community of Winthrop were mostly contained by the end of July. Our staff’s homes were safe. And thanks to their efforts, the coho, steelhead and spring Chinook salmon they care for have survived, too.
Julia Pinnix is visitor services manager for Leavenworth Fisheries Complex. The mission of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is working with others to conserve, protect and enhance fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats. For information, visit fws.gov.