IDELYLD PARK — Nothing is left of the sign on McCarn Lane north of Highway 138 East that welcomed people to Rock Creek Hatchery.
Also gone is the house that used to serve as the home of the hatchery host, which was to the immediate left of the sign. Most of the other structures at the hatchery — save the Rock Ed building that served as an education center for visitors young and old throughout the years — have also been destroyed.
No doubt, the destruction left in the wake of the Archie Creek Fire — by far the largest documented wildfire in Douglas County history — is sobering. A place that raised and released hundreds of thousands of fish into the the North Umpqua and South Umpqua rivers annually is a shell of what it once was thanks to the 131,000-plus acre blaze, which was just one component of what has been a historically bad wildfire season for all of Oregon.
Yet among the scattered shards of glass, exposed building foundations and nearly empty concrete raceways that were once home to multiple species of juvenile and adult coho, steelhead and chinook are signs of hope that the hatchery can recover and be rebuilt. Local officials have had multiple discussions about what it would take to replace Rock Creek, which was first built in 1925.
But the only thing for certain during these initial talks about reviving the hatchery is the amount of uncertainty surrounding it — and the massive amount of time it will take to make it happen if it does.
“I get that feeling from meetings that we’ve had so far, it’s going to be a long process,” said Evan Leonetti, a fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office in Roseburg. “We have to figure out what we’re going to do with the equipment we have right now, how we’re going to scope it and other issues. The list goes on and on and questions keep coming up.
“It’s going to be years before we even have anything on the ground.”
SURVIVING THE FIRE
Dan Meyer’s memories of Sept. 8 are still vivid. He wishes they weren’t.
The Rock Creek Hatchery manager, who has been at the hatchery for the past 34 years and the facility’s manager for the past 22, had to be evacuated from his home near the hatchery during the initial hours of the Archie Creek Fire. He said he had 20 minutes to grab what he could from his house before evacuating down Rock Creek Road to Highway 138 East, with fire embers hitting the windshield of the car along the way.
One day later, a Level 3 “Go!” evacuation order was still in place, but Meyer said he was able to convince Oregon State Police officers to let him and some staff members go back to the hatchery to check on the fish even though “they were really reluctant to.”
Donning an N95 mask as he went in through the heavy smoke-filled air, he and his staff discovered that 700 adult spring chinook and summer steelhead had survived in spite of the harsh conditions. Hundreds of thousands of juvenile fish, including winter steelhead, rainbow trout, coho and chinook, were lost in the blaze, though close to 700 coho salmon smolts were later transferred to the hatchery located at Eastwood Elementary School in Roseburg.
The 700 adult fish, however, were immediately transferred to Cole Rivers Hatchery in Trail — a place where Meyer had spent four years working prior to his current stint at the facility east of Glide. The fish were brought to the Trail facility not only to give them a safe haven, but to give them an opportunity to spawn in an attempt to salvage some of Rock Creek’s fish production goals for the calendar year.
Leonetti said those fish have spawned, and the initial plan calls for those fish to be returned to the area in the spring. Meyer, however, said that for as thankful as he was for the fish surviving, he was even more thankful for the first responders who came in and prevented the loss of any human life.
“I can’t even begin to say how awesome the emergency response people were,” he said. “If anyone would have decided to stay, I seriously don’t think we’d be having this same kind of conversation.”
It’s hard to put a value on a place that’s been priceless to so many, but that’s something insurance companies are trying to do now.
The nearly century old hatchery had four on-site residences, two full sets of rearing ponds and a hatch house. Each residence, the hatch house and the on-site supply houses and garages were casualties of the Archie Creek Fire, which also destroyed the supplies, equipment and fish food that were also there. The backdrop of the hatchery, once covered with decades-old Douglas fir trees, are now covered with charred wood and bare ground.
Meyer said the fire burned so hot around the perimeter of the hatchery that it did severe damage to the soil, meaning many of the nutrients essential for natural growth of trees, or even ferns and wildflowers are no longer there. With the prospect of a wet winter coming — based on forecasts given by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — Meyer fears the resulting sediment runoff could contaminate the water supply that feeds into the facility.
Matt Hill, executive director of Douglas Timber Operators, also said the loss of trees surrounding the hatchery is the loss of a natural resource that’s not easily replaced. He said the trees gave additional shade to the rearing ponds and a natural temperature control for the water.
BUILDING BACK BETTER?
Dave Loomis, like Meyer, has spent much of the past three decades at the hatchery. But unlike Meyer, Loomis’ responsibility centered not on raising the fish, but teaching people about them.
Loomis was one of the people who started the educational program at the hatchery and also has been heavily involved in the Umpqua Fish Enhancement Derby when it began close to three decades ago. It turned out that after the fire had moved on after consuming much of the hatchery, the Rock Ed building was the only structure left standing.
And when the Archie Creek Fire started its rapid growth, that building, along with the rest of the hatchery, was the first thing he started worrying about.
“I was actually driving down Highway 138 as the fire was starting,” Loomis said. “I saw just how big it was getting and how quick. I knew it wasn’t going to be good.”
The next day, he helped Meyer salvage what was left of the hatchery fish before turning his attention to helping start the rebuilding process. Essentially, Loomis is hoping to create an opportunity out of this tragedy.
“I’m an optimist,” Loomis said. “The people in the community in Glide have been through a lot of challenging times in the past, and they’ve shown they can buckle down and work together to start the healing process.”
As a case in point, Loomis said numerous people, whether they were community members or past and present employees of the hatchery, have reached out to offer help. He said some structures, like the hatch house, were in need of an upgrade anyway, and this offers an opportunity to improve on what already needed improving.
“Rock Creek has always been about more than just raising fish,” he said. “We’re still discussing a lot of things, but the primary thing we’re talking about is how we can make things better than they were.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which handles much of the aspects in regards to recovery of assets lost from the Archie Creek Fire, is the primary agency looking over the feasibility of rebuilding, or replacing, Rock Creek Hatchery. The process has been, slow, Hill said, and a decision on how to move forward likely won’t be made any time soon.
Initially, however, Hill said an estimated price tag to rebuild the hatchery came in at $15 million, which would replace each of the facilities that were lost while making some slight upgrades on what was there. He also said some officials have argued not to rebuild the hatchery since fish, in theory, could be raised at other hatcheries and transported to the North Umpqua.
Hill, however, said such a move would be counterproductive.
“The broodstock you choose is important,” Hill said. “You want to have fish that are built for the North Umpqua. If you have a hatchery there and you’re pulling fish that were born in that river, returning to that river and surviving in that river, those are your survivors. I mean, there’s a lot of fish biology out there that … well, there’s science people don’t really understand. There’s instances where fish can swim all the way up to Alaska and then, just based on scent, can find their way all the way back to Rock Creek. Something like that is incredible.”
But the compromised landscape, along with the compromised and severely damaged infrastructure at the hatchery, will play a major role in how that decision is made. In the past few weeks, water flow and power have been restored to the facility, which is going to help assess the extent of the damage and what needs to be done to help the facility recover.
Since water quality may be an issue, Meyer said he has considered inserting sentinel fish, which he said are the hatchery equivalent of when miners placed canaries in coal mines to ensure there was breathable air.
“I guess you could say it’s kind of like testing the waters,” Meyer said.
Douglas Timber Operators built the Rock Ed building. Hill said ideally, if the decision was made to rebuild, there would be a strong push to expand on the educational benefits of the hatchery along with the positive environmental benefits it would provide.
Still, in spite of the possibilities, it’ll still be a long wait before anything comes to fruition.
“There’s a lot of different directions you can go with what’s still there,” Hill said. “But I really don’t think they’re going to make a decision on what to do for a really long time.”