Fish hatchery manager Erik Withalm and his crew’s urgent race
to save a million fish from the Holiday Farm Fire.
By Sabrina Baker

Erik Withalm’s heart pounded as he rummaged through the dark. The power had been cut, so he grabbed a flashlight and threw belongings into a duffle bag. The air stunk of smoke.

It was shortly after 2 a.m. on Sept. 7, 2020 in Western Oregon. Leaburg residents were told to  grab what they could and evacuate immediately. That meant Withalm, an Oregon Fish & Wildlife worker who manages the Leaburg Fish Hatchery, had to book it downriver with four employees and a volunteer. They raced against what would become known as the Holiday Farm Fire, a catastrophic blaze that leveled about 430 homes along the McKenzie River Valley in late summer 2020.

“I was in shock,” Withalm later said. “We weren’t prepared.”

Conspiring, combustible elements

During Labor Day Weekend, high winds knocked down power lines, sparking a fire near the town of Rainbow which burned along the banks of the McKenzie River. The 90-mile river originates in the outflow of Clear Lake, flows westward along the slopes of Oregon’s Central Cascade Range in the Willamette National Forest, and joins the Willamette River in east Eugene.

Along with area residents and vast swaths of the Willamette National Forest, the fire threatened the Leaburg Fish Hatchery, an important breeding ground the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife facilitates for about a million rainbow trout, summer steelhead, and Chinook salmon. Withalm and other ODFW employees live in homes built by ODFW adjacent to the hatchery. 

On the afternoon of Sept. 7, officials of Lane County issued a high wind advisory warning. By nightfall, the county shut off power in Leaburg to reduce the risk of an electrical fire. At 2:00 a.m. the next day, officials gave Leaburg residents evacuation orders — grab what you can and leave now.

With an uncontrolled fire burning near Rainbow just 23 miles away, Withalm and his crew left the hatchery in a caravan and drove through the dirty orange light that shone through the smoke.

“It felt like we were on Mars or something,” he said.

Withalm made it out of Leaburg and into the Eugene-Springfield area. Finally with his family, he was relieved that his crew got out safely. Still, he was worried about the hatchery.

Local fish biologist Jeff Ziller soon called with startling news: The Eugene Electric & Waterboard was opening the Leaburg Dam. The reason for it was that the fire, fueled by high winds, knocked trees and large debris into the McKenzie River which were being caught in the reservoir upstream from the Leaburg Dam. If the water overflowed, the dam might catastrophically fail, Withalm recalled him explaining. By opening the dam, EWEB officials staved off that scenario, but in doing so, they created a massive predicament for the Department of Fish & Wildlife.

Opening the dam meant that they had effectively cut the water supply to the hatchery. Without replenishment, the oxygen level in the fish tank water will deplete, leading to the suffocation deaths of a million fish. Although most of the fish were too young to be released, Withalm knew that he and his crew needed to return to the hatchery so the Chinook salmon, rainbow trout, and summer steelhead might have a fighting chance of survival in the McKenzie River.

Thus began Withalm’s second race against the Holiday Farm Fire in 24 hours.

A dangerous rescue mission

On the morning of Sept. 8, three Oregon State Police troopers escorted Withalm and a team of 11 Fish & Wildlife employees directly toward the Holiday Farm Fire, which was approaching Leaburg Hatchery. It was a sunny day in Eugene, but as they approached Leaburg, the caravan used headlights to parse the black, ashy air. The Air Quality index on September 8 was 342 which is hazardous. 

“Driving there, we didn’t know what to expect,” Withalm said. “It was like midnight, with no moon or stars.”  

As they drove, Withalm and his workers hatched a plan. They would split up into teams with designated responsibilities. Employees rushed to the lever to release fish into the river and others were running around lifting screen and after screen in the 41 outdoor tanks.

In the dark, they pulled the heavy, grimy screens from the front of the fish tanks. Tank by tank, thousands of fish shot from holding tanks and through a moss-draped, human-size drainage pipe into the McKenzie River. The splattering echoed around the workers as they wrenched and heaved in the dirty darkness. As they worked, the Holiday Farm Fire encroached on them. Embers and burning leaves fell from the sky, which began to lighten.

“Halfway into us running around, the sky just started getting lighter and lighter,” Withalm said. “It was like an orange glow. That’s when we knew the fire was getting close.”

In 90 minutes, Withalm and his team released one million fish. They left as soon as they came. On the way out, Withalm noticed the wildfire’s flames as they crested a hill.

“It hit us that we might not be coming back to a hatchery, or our homes,” Withalm said. “We thought for sure we lost everything because that fire was coming down.”

On Sept. 10, Withalm was allowed back into the hatchery to see what remained. The fire burned to the outskirts of the facility, but didn’t damage the hatchery or the surrounding homes. 

“We were in shock and disbelief,” he said.

The ordeal “brought a new level of respect” among his workers, Withalm said.

“Nobody hesitated to go in and do the work that needed to be done.”  

Moving forward

For six months, the Leaburg Hatchery was without fish. Withalm didn’t want to bring in fish again with the risk that EWEB might need to open the dam again due to debris from the fires flowing into the reservoir.

“We didn’t want to risk bringing fish on site, only to have heavy rains force EWEB to drain the lake, taking away our water supply again,” Withalm said.

Since the Holiday Farm Fire, Withalm and his crew have kept busy. They’ve added fire-hardening measures to the property and developed wildfire contingency plans. EWEB also agreed to give Fish & Wildlife more head’s up next time they open the dam, which might allow hatchery staff enough time to  relocate fish to another hatchery.  

Withalm won’t know the effects of releasing a million Chinook salmon, steelhead and trout fish, most of them premature, are unknown for two to three years, when they return from the Pacific Ocean as spawning adults.

In the meantime, another life cycle turns a page at Leaburg Hatchery. In April 2021, Withalm and his team received 81,000 rainbow trout, which they released into the Mckenzie River in April 2020. In summer 2021, Chinook salmon and summer steelhead are expected to return to the Leaburg Hatchery.