The long and winding road to recovery is finally under way at the Rock Creek Fish Hatchery, decimated by the Archie Creek Fire last September.
The hatchery, which had stood since 1925, suffered devastating damage as a result of the fire. Buildings were burnt to their concrete foundation and the underground plumbing which supplied water to the hatchery’s raceways was severely damaged due to the intensity of the heat from the blaze.
Seven months later, cleanup has begun as the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife embarks on what is expected to be a year-long effort to have the hatchery back to running at 100% efficiency.
As of November, restoring the Rock Creek hatchery is expected to cost an estimated $15 million.
“Cleanup is happening right now. We’re getting the debris out,” said hatchery manager Dan Meyer on Tuesday. “There are a lot of things integral to our infrastructure that still need to happen.”
The ODFW worked in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to identify potential environmental hazards prior to starting cleanup operations.
“There were a variety of things DEQ was concerned about, not just for the hatchery but for a lot of places up there,” said ODFW fish biologist Greg Huchko of Roseburg district office.
Aside from the Rock Ed building that has served as an education center for years, all other buildings on the property were leveled by the fire.
Additionally, raceways intended to house fish from smolts to adults were rendered unable to use without a water supply.
“Most of our raceways were damaged because of the plumbing,” Huchko said. “They’re all concrete, but the infrastructure inside was so damaged that most were either completely or partially shut off.”
The only viable pool at the hatchery currently is the “swim-in” pond, the first stop for adult salmon and steelhead returning to the hatchery. However, the gate for that pond needs to be replaced before it can be used for swim-ins. Meyer said a new gate is currently being fashion, and ODFW hopes to have it in place by the middle of April in anticipation of the May return of hatchery spring chinook.
“That was the first pond we wanted to address because we knew the spring chinook were the first returning fish we were going to see,” Huchko said.
Meanwhile, two hours south in Trail, the nearly 700 adult salmon and steelhead rescued from Rock Creek after the Archie Creek Fire have been completely spawned at the Cole Rivers Hatchery. Embryos are already evident in the eggs taken from those female fish.
“It looks like we’re going to be a full production for both salmon and steelhead,” Huchko said.
“Full production” equates to rearing 340,000 spring Chinook smolts, which Huchko said meant harvesting close to 400,000 eggs to account for inevitable loss. For summer steelhead, the goal is 150,000 smolts.
Once those fish are hatched, the goal is to bring them home to acclimate them to Rock Creek.
“We’re optimistic we can get them back up here and acclimate them in the fall, but that may not be until next spring,” Huchko said. “A lot of that depends on the progress we have made at Rock Creek.
“We have dedicated raceway space at Cole Rivers if we’re not ready, but we want to make sure we acclimate those fish at Rock Creek so they know to come back.”
Huchko said as smolts, salmon and steelhead take between two and three weeks to properly acclimate to a water source.
The ODFW is relying on financial assistance through insurance and the Federal Emergency Management Administration to bridge the gap necessary to get the hatchery back up to full operation.
Meanwhile, the crew at Cole Rivers will continue to incubate, hatch and raise this year’s allotment of Rock Creek Hatchery springers and summer steelhead, while also meeting the Trail hatchery’s production goals.
“My hat’s off to the Cole Rivers crew,” Meyer said. “They are doing double-duty down there. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”