HAPPY CAMP, Calif. (TSWT) — A dangerous wildfire in a remote area just south of the Oregon border appears to have killed tens of thousands of Klamath River fish, the Karuk tribe said.
The tribe said in a statement the dead fish of all types were found Friday near Happy Camp, California, along the main trunk of the Klamath River.
It’s unclear what exactly caused the fish kill, but tribe biologists believe a flash flood caused by heavy rainfall over the burned area triggered a massive stream of debris entering the river, said Craig Tucker, a spokesman for the tribe.
The Karuk are working with the Yurok, another tribe in Northern California, and state and federal agencies to gain access to the fire zone to better understand what happened and the extent of the problem.
It is still unclear whether the fish kill will be local or spread further downstream, affecting additional fish.
A photo of the Karuk, taken about 20 miles (32 kilometers) downstream from the flash flood, showed several dozen dead fish belly up amid sticks and other debris in thick, brown water along the riverbank.
The McKinney Fire, which burned more than 233 square miles in the Klamath National Forest, this week wiped out the quaint hamlet of Klamath River, which was home to about 200 people. The flames killed four people in the small community and reduced most homes and businesses to ashes.
Scientists have said that over the past three decades, climate change has made the West warmer and drier, and will continue to make the weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive. In the American West, a 22-year megadrought in 2021 became so deep that the region is now in its driest period in at least 1,200 years.
When it started, the McKinney Fire only burned several hundred acres and firefighters thought they would get it under control soon. But thunderstorms came in with raging gusts of wind that had pushed it into an unstoppable conflagration within hours.
The fire was 30% under control on Saturday.
The fish kill was a blow to the Karuk and Yurok tribes, who have been fighting for years to protect the vulnerable salmon populations in the Klamath River. The salmon is revered by the Karuk tribe and the Yurok tribe, California’s second largest Native American tribe.
The federally endangered fish species has suffered from low currents in the Klamath River in recent years, and a parasite deadly to salmon thrived in the warmer, slower-moving waters last summer, killing large numbers of fish.
After years of negotiations, four dams in the lower river that impede salmon migration are on track to be removed next year in what would be the largest dam demolition project in U.S. history in an effort to help the fish recover.