Twitchell Fire • Ash from the blaze produced suffocating sediment, but biologists look for positives.
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Land is not the only thing savaged by wildfire.
Rivers, streams and lakes in the areas of wildfires often become warm, muddy and black liquid incapable of supporting fish.
Clear Creek in Sevier County is the latest Utah fishery to suffer the ill effects of wildfire.
The Twitchell Fire burned more than 45,000 aces in the Fishlake National Forest before autumn rains put a damper on the flames. The rains that finally helped officials get control of the fire also filled the surrounding creeks and rivers with ash.
"As soon as the fire reached the Clear Creek drainage, we knew things were likely going to be bad," said Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) fisheries biologist Mike Hadley, who visited Clear Creek in early October and witnessed a river running black with ash.
Hadley called Twitchell a "high severity" fire that basically burned most things to a crisps and left little on the landscape. The threats to fish in nearby waters are multiple in these kinds of blazes.
"As soon as the rains starts, there is nothing to stop the water and it flushes all the ash to the bottom of the canyons where the rivers are," Hadley said.
The result is a heavy sediment load in the water that essentially suffocates fish. Many obstacles in and along the waterways are also taken out by these hot fires, and that leaves little to prevent the water from creating deep straight channels.
"Streams have cut down straight to the bedrock in some places in other fires," Hadley said. "Fires take out a lot of habitat. We will see the impacts of the Twitchell fire for years to come."
State biologists have not surveyed Clear Creek and its tributaries to see if fish made it through the initial ash flows, but Hadley talked to a U.S. Forest Service biologist who had contacted a quick backpacking electroshock survey.
"He did some spot sampling here and there on Clear Creek and tributaries Fish Creek and Shingle Creek. He found fish in the upper part of Clear and the other two," Hadley said. "We lost a lot of fish and that is to be expected, but he did find fish and that is a good sign. He did find brown trout and rainbow trout while sampling Clear Creek in Fremont Indian State Park."
The fire started in July in the Indian Creek drainage north of Beaver and hit Shingle Creek on Sept. 19, three days before state biologists were going to start a rotenone treatment on the creek. The treatment was to remove all fish to make way for a protected native Bonneville cutthroat population. A barrier to prevent other species from heading back into the system is already in place.
Prompted by the fire, fisheries officials are now thinking about extending the native cutthroat trout restoration to include the entire Clear Creek drainage. The restoration was planned for about 35 miles of stream, but it could easily be stretched to 50 miles.
"The fire was certainly detrimental to fish," Hadley said. "But we are trying to look at it as an opportunity to make the most of the situation and expand the range of native fish. We have a native cutthroat restoration plan in place for three of Clear Creek's tributaries, and we should be able to expand it without too much more work."
Coming up with a plan for the Bonneville cutthroat restoration will be easy compared with the work ahead, making Clear Creek and its tributaries a suitable habitat for fish.
Hadley said work on stream rehabilitation will likely begin this winter with the installation of rock structures to reduce erosion from the spring runoff. Future work may include dropping dead timber in more remote areas to serve as erosion busters.
Hadley has already been contacted by anglers from Trout Unlimited chapters to see if they could help restore the fishery.
"This will be a multiyear project and there will be plenty of opportunities to help," Hadley said. "We will take whatever volunteers and whatever means they can come up with."