Homewaters-On-Fire-by-Kelley-Moen-Oregon-Fires
An air tanker drops retardant on Central Oregon's Milli Fire in August 2017. Photo provided by the Deschutes National Forest inciweb and the Sisters Ranger District.

Homewaters on Fire

We all have them, we all love them.   Whether they are famous Blue Ribbon trout streams or unknown trickles of creek water, if they hold local fish we can’t help but sincerely care about our very own water. At Catch Magazine, our homewater is Whychus Creek. 

It begins in the Three Sisters Wilderness on the east slope of the Cascades Range in Central Oregon. It flows north through the small mountain town of Sisters and into the Deschutes River and then the Columbia River, where it finally empties into the Pacific Ocean.


This creek is significant due to the presence of a native strain of Interior Columbia Basin redband trout with little influence from hatchery fish.  Whychus Creek also holds the ongoing reintroduction of federally listed “threatened” steelhead.

 

The Sisters Elementary School students and teachers participated in the “River Celebration” in 2016.
Aerial photo by Todd Moen.

In fact, in 2016 a community event called “River Celebration” in Sisters raised awareness about the need to protect the Whychus Creek watershed.  This was a collaborative effort between U.S. National Forest employees, tribal members of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Sisters Community and the Sisters Elementary School that gave kids the opportunity to have a profound, hands-on impact in reviving Whychus Creek’s vitality.   Along with creating an incredible community art project, school kids here raised and released steelhead fry into Whychus Creek.  In April 2016, the Deschutes Land Trust announced that their first adult steelhead, identified as “Stella the Steelhead,” had returned to their homewaters of Whychus Creek. 

The “River Celebration” art installation is permanently mounted along the Hwy 20 elementary school fence-line as a lasting tribute to Deschutes Watershed and its importance to our region. The installation includes a scene of the Three Sisters Mountains, with boulders, water shapes, fish eggs, smolts and varying size of fish. All of the students of the Sisters Elementary School participated in the project, along with community members who helped paint the pieces. In the process of creating the work, students have come to understand the importance of Whychus Creek and the habitat and biodiversity of Sisters Country.
Photos by Todd and Kelley Moen
Sisters Elementary kids were able to grow and release steelhead fry into Wychus Creek, just a few blocks from their school. Together with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, teachers developed “The Stream Stewards” storyline, where students learned about nature, the life-cycle of fish and specifically about Whychus Creek. Here Stella Moen sends a small steelhead on its way.
Photo by Todd Moen.


Now enter the wildfire season.  

While Montana and Idaho currently burn, the state of Oregon is on fire, too. A map from inciweb nearly glows orange with wildfire emoticons plastered along the corridors of Oregon wildlands, running north and south along the Cascades Range, on the eastern dry side as well as the more temperate western side. Oregon fires abound with the names like Eagle Creek, Miller Complex, Chetco Bar Fire, Jones Fire, Nash Fire, Rebel Fire, and on and on. These lands hold massive numbers of fisheries, including Whychus Creek.

On August 11, the Milli Fire started burning just 9 miles from our town of Sisters. Sparked by lightning near Black Crater Lake, it quickly grew as strong winds fanned it southeast through the upper 2 miles of nearby Trout Creek and toward a section of Whychus Creek.    

Left: The Milli Fire grew to burn more than 24,000 acres and has added to the region’s hazardous smoke levels this fall. Photo by Todd Moen
Right: The DEQ air quality index is a color-coded tool that measures air pollution based on the units ppm (parts per million) and µg/m3 (micrograms per cubic meter.) In this photo the AQI was nearly 490, well into the hazardous zone. Photo by Christine Funk.

30 days later, the Milli Fire has continued to burn more than 24 thousand acres and is only under 60% containment.  Level 1, 2 and 3 evacuation alerts were in place for three weeks, affecting many of the folks living inside and outside city limits. The DEQ air quality index put Sisters in the maroon “hazardous” zone daily for the past two weeks.  The first day of school for Sisters School District was initially postponed and then canceled due to the hazardous smoky air.  





When our fourth-grade son Charlie was at home (due to school closures), he saw large air tankers full of fire retardant flying in low and headed toward the upper reaches of Whychus Creek just blocks from our home. His emphatic question rang clear to us: “What’s gonna happen to Whychus Creek?”

Charlie’s immediate concern was about his beloved Whychus Creek. His home waters. So he asked Mike Riehle to explain. Mike is the Supervisory Fisheries Biologist for the Sisters Ranger District in the Deschutes National Forest. Mike has worked hard to get a corridor of Whychus creek listed as Wild and Scenic, and he succeeded in that effort in 2012. 


During the wildfire season, Mike acts as Lead Resource Advisor to the fire fighters to help minimize the effects on resources such as recreation, archeology, fisheries and plants. He was on the fire line during the Milli fire, advising fire fighters and helping to reduce any negative impacts fire suppression could have on the land.

Mike Riehle, the Lead Resource Advisor to the Sisters Forest Service, helps repair a dozer line near Trout Creek.
Photo provided by Mike Riehle.
New fish habitat was created in Jack Creek after Central Oregon’s B&B Complex Fire in 2003, which burned nearly 91,000 acres. This photo captures 13 years’ worth of regrowth and natural revival after a major forest fire.

Mike lives in Sisters, and his homewaters include Whychus Creek, too. He knew how to answer Charlie’s pressing questions: 

“What will happen to Whychus Creek in the fire?”  

Mike Riehle- “Whychus Creek is just fine.   The day the fire burned over the creek, there were logs falling into the creek as they burned out.  Charcoal and branches were seen floating downstream.  As more burned trees fall into the creek, more logs jams are created and that’s where the fish live.    The reach of stream that burned on Whychus Creek is only 1 mile, and I think Whychus Creek will be just fine.”

“What is in that red stuff (fire retardant) and will it kill the fish?”  

Mike Riehle- “The red stuff is the fire retardant that was dropped from a big plane to stop the fire from burning over the creek.  While they were fighting a spot fire that had jumped the creek, the plane pilot pushed the button too early and the first bit of retardant hit the creek.  A small amount of retardant did drop into the creek, but it was lucky that the small amount didn’t harm the fish in the creek.   Retardant and fish don’t get along, and it can kill fish [due to high ammonia concentrations in the retardant] if enough red stuff gets in the creek.  The pilot tried not to drop it that close to the creek.   The fish were lucky.”

In many situations, the use of retardant in concert with firefighters on the ground allows the Forest Service to safely meet its responsibilities to protect landscapes, resources, and people. Consisting primarily of ammonium phosphate — fertilizer, basically — fire retardant is formulated to slow down the combustion of trees, brush and grass.
Fire crews completed fire lines on the southeast corner of Central Oregon’s Milli Fire to protect Whychus Creek and properties nearby. As the fall season arrives, the fire will finally be extinguished by rain or snowfall. Here Charlie is back on his homewaters for an after-school fish.
Photo by Todd Moen

“How can I (a kid) help the creek and the fish after a wildfire?”  

Mike Riehle- “Both sides of the creek did burn the plants along the stream bank, plants that hold the soil from washing into the creek.  The soil can hurt the insects in the creek and smother the trout eggs as they grow.  The best thing you can do is let the plants grow back on their own.  That means staying on the trail next time you hike in the canyon to your favorite fishing spot or that waterfall that’s in the fire area.”  

Charlie asked questions and found answers. 

You too can ask your local fisheries experts, get involved and see how you can be an advocate for your own homewaters.  It starts with you asking questions.  Don’t wait for your school kids to beat you to it!

Kelley Moen

Contributed By

Kelley Moen & Michael Riehle

Kelley Moen earned degrees in anthropology and French language from Montana State University in Bozeman.  She then spent time fly fishing and working in New Zealand, completing a degree in secondary education.  Combining these experiences with her interest in writing, she pursued a master’s degree in print journalism from the University of Montana in Missoula and graduated with honors in environmental reporting.  Kelley is the copy editor for Catch Magazine.  She lives in Central Oregon with her husband and two kids.


Michael Riehle is the Supervisory Fisheries Biologist for the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon.  He is stationed at the Sisters Ranger District at the base of the Three Sisters Mountains.  Mike has spent the past decade working to protect the district’s resources.  He succeeded in helping to gain “Wild and Scenic” status for a corridor of Whychus Creek, which runs through the town of Sisters.  Mike is the Lead Resource Advisor during wildfire season.  He is an avid fly angler and a reader of Catch Magazine.

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