Heavy rain that flooded an area burned by California’s largest wildfire this year is being blamed for a major fish kill on the Klamath River. Biologists with the Karuk Tribe say thousands of suckerfish, salmon, and trout found floating belly up in the river Friday were most likely killed by a plume of debris that washed into the Klamath after three inches of rain fell on areas burned by the McKinney fire on Tuesday. The Tribe says that the storm flushed burned soil, rocks, and downed timber into the river.
In a press advisory, the tribe reported “very large numbers” of dead fish in the vicinity of Happy Camp, California, along the mainstem of the Klamath River. The dead fish were found more than 20 miles from the source of the debris flow. The Karuk is working with state and federal agencies and the Yurok Tribe to access the area and determine the scope of the damage. Officials do not yet know whether the fish kill will affect the fall migration of Chinook salmon, which is just beginning on the Klamath.
Kenneth Brink, a fisherman and member of the Karuk Tribe, told the New York Times that the river had the consistency of “chocolate milk.” Brink observed the kill firsthand. “It [smelled] vile,” Brink said. “If it was in that river, it died.”
The Karuk and Yurok tribes have worked for years to protect the Klamath’s salmon, which are revered by the tribes but have been devastated by low water flows, dams, and a fish-killing parasite. The tribes helped negotiate the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history, scheduled for next year, and in 2021, successfully petitioned the California Fish and Game Commission to list the Klamath-Trinity River Spring Chinook as an endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act.
The McKinney fire started July 29 in the Klamath National Forest in Siskiyou County near the Oregon state line and quickly expanded to 60,000 acres. It has claimed the lives of four people, forced thousands out of their homes, and destroyed more than 100 structures. Heat and smoke from the wildfire generated a massive pyrocumulonimbus, which NASA refers to as the “fire-breathing dragon of clouds.” The storm cloud can bring more torrential rain and lightning to the area. As of August 9, the fire is 55 percent contained. Its cause is under investigation.