The Fish Abide – Forging Hope After the Camp Fire

A note from the editor/Zeke:
Last week part of a hydropower flume in Upper Butte Creek, near where we live, in Chico, California, collapsed, sending millions of gallons of water down a steep forested slope, and causing a landslide of mud and soil which poured into Butte Creek. This has caused many days of extremely polluted water downstream, jeopardizing the lives of what is already a small run of endangered salmon, waiting to spawn downstream. The fish are a symbol of hope for us here in Butte County, having come back in force after migrating out of Butte Creek under high levels of pollution from the runoff of the burned Town of Paradise after the 2018 Camp Fire. We’re covering the canal failure on The Lookout, and I am posting this to give readers an idea of why we care so much about some mud in our creek.

This essay was originally published in California Blacksmith Magazine.

Butte Creek, 8/10/2023

Forging a Butte Creek Wild Chinook Salmon

My first encounter with ‘The Fish’ came at the end of a wild house party in Helltown, a historic gold mining ghetto at the end of the pavement in Butte Creek Canyon. As the evening heat poured away down the Canyon, a bunch of us followed our host down a poison oak-covered trail and he shined the last few photons from a dying headlamp into a dark pool below a low cliff, faintly illuminating some giant prehistoric torpedoes in the cloudy water. ‘Those are salmon, they come up from the ocean in the spring and spawn in the fall’. I’m not sure how we found our way back up the hill. In the morning I had poison oak, and I wasn’t sure if maybe it was all just a weird dream. But when a friend moved into a shack nearby, we took off our clothes, put on snorkels, and dove down through the clear, cold water, drifting sleekly through the old logs jammed into deep lava-boulder jumbles. When the curtains of air bubbles would part, we’d be eyeball to eyeball with dozens of 25 pound Chinook salmon.

‘The Canyon’ is a deep, narrow slot chiseled into a layercake of volcanic mudflows that comprise the foothills of the Northern Sacramento Valley between Oroville and Red Bluff. About 1,000 people put up with hot summers, frequent wildfires, and a curvy 20-minute commute to Chico for a chance to live out in the country near a cold creek.

People have put up with fires, hid out from the heat, and skinny-dipped with salmon in the Canyon since the dawn of time. Gold-crazy newcomers murdered the locals, blasted tunnels, built flumes, and used giant nozzles to wash the mountains into the creek. In the 1950s, giant dredges churned through the lower reaches of the canyon (working directly in the creek) turning over every rock for hundreds of acres looking for the crumbs of gold missed 100 years earlier. Modern-day prospectors haul big loads of fertilizer up the old wagon trails, and farmers in the Valley have turned the waterways into a plumber’s nightmare of canals, dams, pumps, and pesticides, but the fish have survived it all, and still make it back to Helltown every year.

Not long after I met the fish, my kayaking buddy got me a job surveying logging roads and mapping wildfire hazards in Upper Butte Creek as part of efforts to improve conditions for the salmon run. I moved into my own shack just down the road. I could park on my motorcycle downstairs and hear the creek from my bed in the loft. 1999 was the highest water year in about a decade. There were a lot of salmon in the Creek that year, the grass grew tall, and we kayaked the creek at every opportunity until well into summer.

A huge lightning storm came in the end of August 1999, and the whole west side of the Canyon burned. We had to evacuate, but this wasn’t too hard at the time – everything I owned fit in the back of a small Toyota pickup, with room to spare. I threw my kayak out into the middle of the garden and headed up the hill to cut brush at my boss’ house out ahead of the fire. I sucked too much smoke and got really sick with a high fever. I crawled behind a friend’s couch in our evacuation crash-pad and slept for two days. When I woke up, I was healed and even though the entire 10 miles of the Canyon burned, no structures had been lost. But since then, some areas have burned at least 5 times, and many homes have been destroyed. After each fire, however, the oak trees resprout, the brush grows back, people clean up, and the signs of fire quickly retreat.

I was working on prescribed burns in South Carolina in November, 2018 when I got a photo from my wife of an enormous black cloud blocking out the sunrise in Chico. It was the beginning of the Camp Fire. By the end of the day, over 20,000 buildings were destroyed and 85 people burned alive in Paradise and Butte Creek Canyon.

Morning of the Camp Fire.

I hopped the first plane home, flying into a Sacramento Valley full of toxic smoke. Over the next month, we made maps for the teams managing the search for human remains in Paradise and triaged the area leveled by the fire for emergency erosion control. We installed miles of erosion control wattles and sandbags, trying to keep the toxic runoff from 35 destroyed mobile home parks, burned paint stores, auto body shops, and thousands of home workshops from flowing into the creeks. It was a futile effort. The early-winter storms poured down cold rain onto the bleak scene – Tyvek-suited crews still picking their way through the rubble looking for human remains. Black, oily, foul water spilled over our berms and sandbags, pouring into the tributaries of Butte Creek. I saw a frantic gray river otter darting around in a small, charcoal-black creek. It looked like it had lost its mind.

Burned neighborhood in Paradise – Photo by Owen Bettis

Since the fire, many of us here have lost parts of our minds. Things we thought would always be here just evaporated and blew out over the ocean. Paradise was pretty much wiped off the map, and The Canyon took huge losses. Hundreds of pets died, whole neighborhoods of homes disappeared. Cleanup crews cut down hundreds of thousands of trees, and utility crews mucked up the burn as they worked to repair the power lines. I drove up and down The Canyon during every storm, trying to keep the water out of the wrecked buildings, and trying not to look at the twisted wreckage of the Honeyrun Covered Bridge.

Built across Butte Creek in the 1890s, the Bridge was an icon for Butte County, and especially for the Canyon. It had been closed to traffic in the 1970s and turned into a park. The site hosted weddings, graduation photos, birthday parties, reunions, and an annual pancake breakfast. The Bridge is right at the intersection of the two historic wagon roads up the Canyon, and while hundreds of people in the Canyon lost their homes, the loss of the Bridge has been especially deep-felt by the entire region. Fundraising efforts to rebuild the Bridge started almost immediately.

Photo: California Through My Lens

In fall of 2020, I got a call from Walt Shafer, an elder in the Butte Creek Canyon community and board-member of the Honeyrun Covered Bridge Association. He had heard I did metal art. Would I be interested in making sculptures from the wrought iron salvaged from the wreckage of the bridge as a fundraiser for the new bridge? The County had saved a lot of the material, we could do whatever we wanted. My mind started spinning on concepts for a large sculpture. How would it symbolize the destruction and recovery, the trauma and resilience, the natural beauty, the persistence of the landscape? My wife, Erika, was a voice of reason. “People are going to drive by it every day. They don’t want to see something sad, or reflective. It needs to be something that makes them feel good. Something that welcomes them home”.

As luck would have it, I had just recruited Jeb Sisk to move into the workshop next to mine. A sixth-generation Butte County resident, Jeb grew up in Helltown, and has been making art and sculpture around Chico his whole life. Like everyone in Butte County, Jeb has his own intense story around the Camp Fire. As Paradise burned, all of the traffic streaming out of town blocked fire trucks from getting into the Canyon. Later, downed powerlines and exploding propane tanks made access impossible. On the first night of the fire, Jeb and some other locals dodged obstacles and roadblocks, sneaking back into the Canyon on an old jeep road, and over the next 24 hours, they used their own heavy equipment and skills to keep the fire completely out of their community. They were dubbed the ‘’Helltown Hotshots’.

Sisko’s Last Mural

Jeb and I started hanging out in my shop. We rewired, painted, and moved equipment into the trashed workspace next door, and Jeb’s father, David Sisk, painted one of his iconic murals on the wall – an Egyptian blacksmith with an anvil, and a God brandishing lightning bolts. We talked over design ideas, and agreed that after Butte County’s share of bad fires over the past decade, The Phoenix is tired of coming here. Since we both had writer’s block when it came to a design, we decided to go with a shape we knew well. I drew a design at scale, and we made sheet metal templates of the major components.

We headed to the County Yard and found a gnarly big pasta-wad of wrought iron. The County had used an excavator to pack the wreckage of the bridge into big dump trucks, and it was a lot of work to get usable pieces out of the pile. They wouldn’t let us use a torch to cut it up, but eventually we got a pretty good load of material. The fire had baked on 100 years worth of lead paint, forming an almost indestructible patina. We decided right away that we didn’t want to deal with any lead in the shop, and that everything needed to be commercially sandblasted before we’d work with it. This turned out to be expensive and slow-going. So we picked out an assortment of the best pieces and got them done first.

Much of my artistic metalwork over the years has centered on creating texture. I started making custom stamps I could press into red-hot metal about 6 years ago, and have been scaling-up the size of the dies since I got a 25-ton hydraulic press. A friend of mine lost his blacksmith shop in the Camp Fire, and I was able to buy and restore his 2 Anyang power hammers, and we used both of them on this project.

Jeb had no blacksmithing experience, but he is very comfortable in a shop, and he has been able to jump right into toolmaking and hot work. We developed about 20 pieces of custom tooling to texture the wrought iron bars that make up the body and fins of the fish, and then forged them to shape. A blacksmithing buddy, Than King, came down from Susanville for a couple days and helped forge. Another shop partner, Danny Reynolds TIG welded fins onto the body.

The base is made of a piece of heavy channel used to repair the bridge after it was hit by a truck in the late 1960s. The stand uses pieces of ‘eyebar’ and one of the original pins from the bridge structure and the base. Except for the pins that connect the eyebars and some castings that connect bars to wood, most of the bridge was made from 1880s wrought iron, hauled from who-knows-where in a time before trucks. The base is meant to convey a transition from human invention and industry to the organic flow of the Creek and The Fish.

We sold the fish to Meriam Park, a new development in South Chico. The sale raised $15,000 for the Honeyrun Covered Bridge Association. Jeb and I just got a grant from the California Arts Commission/Upstate Creative Corps to build a larger outdoor sculpture for the Covered Bridge Park. A spawning pair of wild Butte Creek Chinook Salmon.

As we were finishing the piece, Jeb’s father, ‘Sisko’ died, suddenly, while on a walk in the foothills. We dedicate this piece to his memory.