Researchers, advocates keep an eye on McKenzie River after wildfire

Researchers are keeping an eye on the health of the McKenzie River, which flows through the middle of it all.

Posted: Oct 2, 2020 10:54 AM
Updated: Oct 2, 2020 5:08 PM

VIDA, Ore. -- The Holiday Farm Fire left patches of destruction along the Highway 126 corridor, and while communities recover from lost homes and livelihoods, researchers are also keeping an eye on the health of the McKenzie River, which flows through the middle of it all.

The fire left a patchwork of destroyed land, homes and other structures while leaving other areas unscathed.

Among the properties touched by the fire were those protected by the McKenzie River Trust, a Eugene-based nonprofit land trust throughout the McKenzie Basin. Their conservation efforts focus on protecting habitat and ensuring clean water. 

Executive Director Joe Moll said that along Highway 126, none of the lands they protect went untouched by the fire.

"The McKenzie River defines the community in many ways," he said. "We have a lot to learn about what has happened. It's still unfolding before us."

Moll and some of his staff were able to visit the area for the first time last Friday. Along the riverside, they found that a patchwork of vegetation went unscathed by the fire. Though the water was running clear, they were thinking about the health of the river.

"We knew that right around the time of the fires is typically when wild spring Chinook salmon are returning to the side channels and lower areas of the McKenzie River and spawning," Moll said "So we were wondering, 'What's going on?'"

Oregon State University College of Forestry Associate Professor Kevin Bladon visited the Holiday Farm Fire burn area to assess the water and soil.

He said that rainwater can typically infiltrate forest soils, but when burned, water will flow over the ground, especially on steep slopes. 

Along with the rainwater, things like soil, arsenic, mercury and nitrogen can flow into the river, which can impact the optical quality of the water or increase algae growth, among other things.

"If you start to study the whole system, you start to realize there's always some winners and some losers. Some things change in a positive way and other aspects that are quite negative and persist for multiple decades," Bladon said.

However, wildfire impacts can also improve the health of the river. For instance, increased amounts of insects, worms and other organisms can provide food for fish. More fallen trees and vegetation in the water can create a complex habitat and encourage healthy ecosystems.

Though the fall and winter rains will be the true test of how the river fares, at the riverside, Moll found a symbol of hope while in the burn area.

"There beneath the surface were Chinook salmon spawning right there as they've always done," he said.

The fish spawned in the McKenzie this year will begin their journey to the ocean next year. They will not return until five to six years later.

"Try to imagine, what will they encounter? What will the river look like in six years? What will the community look like in six years?" Moll said.

He hopes that as the community rebuilds, they help the river become healthier.

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