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Refuge firefighter fills assignment to Gulf spill

Since April 20th, events in the Gulf of Mexico have been driven by the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and subsequent oil spill. The impact of that disaster has now reached as far as North Dakota as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff members are tapped for duty.

6/16/10 (Wed)


Since April 20th, events in the Gulf of Mexico have been driven by the response to the Deepwater Horizon oil platform explosion and subsequent oil spill. The impact of that disaster has now reached as far as North Dakota as U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service staff members are tapped for duty.


Fire management officer Doug Downs, stationed at the Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge near Kenmare, was the first of what may become several area USFWS personnel to take an assignment on the Gulf Coast. Downs spent May 28th through June 8th stationed in Mobile, Alabama, where the USFWS began efforts to rescue birds impacted by the oil still gushing from the well into the waters of the Gulf.


Downs was sent to Mobile as an operations section chief. “I supervised crews out responding to calls about birds, dead or alive, oiled or not oiled,” he said.


Other USFWS employees from across the country were also called to the scene, including firefighters like Downs and several biologists.


The federal agency set up a bird rescue and recovery plan in conjunction with British Petroleum, owner of the destroyed oil well. Downs said that residents all along the Gulf Coast would make calls about birds they saw to the Deepwater Horizon Hotline in Houston, TX, which was established by BP. Certain calls were routed to Downs, where his crew of 15 to 20 individuals worked in pairs to respond to the reports from their operations base at Dauphin Island, AL.


According to Downs, the 14-hour days could feel disorganized. “We’d start out the morning with a briefing, then send the crews out,” he said. “Then more calls would come in and we’d start changing everything.”


The crews spend much time walking the beaches, shoreline and marshes of the coast, looking for specific birds reported by individuals, with about 20 to 25 calls coming each day. “We covered an area from the Biloxi-Gulfport region in Mississippi to Panama City, Florida,” Downs said. His crews were not required to wear the same protective gear seen on teams actually cleaning the beaches and marshes.


Many residents seemed to be learning about the Gulf’s birds, as reports were made about everything from molting mallard drakes, whose brown feathers appeared oil-covered when they actually weren’t, to the famed brown pelicans whose existence as a species is now threatened by the spill. “Most of the calls were false alarms for everybody,” Downs said. “But it was starting to change as I left, because more of the oil was getting closer.”


When Downs landed in Mobile, the oil still leaking from the BP well had not yet reached the Alabama coast, although places in Louisiana were already dealing with its effects. “Nobody was really seeing anything when I got there,” he said, “but before the oil got to the beach, people would say, ‘Boy, it really smells like petroleum.’ You could see a sheen on the water, and helicopter pilots were reporting seeing oil off the coast.”


Within a couple of days, the oil was noticeable. “And by the time I left, you’d see tar balls or even mats of oil washed up on the beaches,” said Downs.


He noted that barrier islands off the coast of Alabama kept the oil out of Mobile Bay while he was there. “Western Florida seemed to be getting it worse,” he said. “The oil wasn’t quite in the Bay yet, but it was working its way in. The booms are somewhat effective, but they’re not the answer because they break or high winds just wash the waves of oil over them. In some places, they were putting straw bales at the tide line, trying to soak up the oil.”


The bird recovery crews began their work immediately after Downs’s arrival and collected several carcasses of birds that may or may not have been related to the oil spill. “There was a protocol we had to follow with those to document their location,” said Downs. “We’d take them to a receiving center, where they were processed for evidence.”


USFWS personnel were operating those receiving centers, which included several refrigeration trucks to store the carcasses.


Live birds caught by the crews were transported to recovery centers operated by contractors hired by BP. “There were some volunteers doing bird clean-up,” Downs explained. “Depending on the condition of the birds, they would be washed up or killed if they had something else wrong, like a broken wing.”


Birds that were cleaned and deemed otherwise healthy were later released into areas not contaminated with oil, although Downs conceded such places could become scarce in the near future as the oil continues to wash ashore.


“There’s still oil gushing out of that well,” he said when he returned. “That’s 50 days so far, which means even if they capped it now there would be oil washing ashore for another 50 days. I think it’s going to have a pretty big effect on everything in the Gulf.”


He described the local residents as friendly and cooperative toward the USFWS crews that moved in to work. “They mostly seemed happy with us,” he said. “They complained a lot about BP. Some of them are pretty worried.”


He agreed they had cause to be worried, given the matrix of marshes and beaches that support a rich diversity of wildlife and attract tourists. “Look at Florida, with those white beaches,” he said. “Having big brown globs of oil washing up on them is not good for business.”


Those globs of oil are not good for wildlife, either, with Gulf citizens and federal personnel sharing worries about the consequences to sea turtles, marine mammals, and crabs, shrimp and other seafood species, along with the birds.


“Anything that sits out in that water is going to be affected,” said Downs. “The pelicans dive through the oily sheen, and seagulls pick stuff off the surface.”


USFWS staff also discussed the potential problems for bird species that migrated north before the Deepwater Horizon incident. “They think the impact from this will continue through at least the next year, as some of the birds come back to this area in the wintertime,” said Downs.


He added that the bulk of the oil is currently located at the bottom of the Mississippi Flyway. “Most of our waterfowl stays west of there, in the Central Flyway,” he said. “The oil spill is not moving west much right now, but that depends on currents and storms in the next few months.”


Downs was somewhat frustrated with the bird rescue and recovery efforts as federal agencies and BP attempted to coordinate their activities. “The incident command structure was convoluted, compared to what I’m used to on fires,” he said.


However, he expected to return to the region throughout the next year. In fact, at least two other staff members at the Des Lacs NWR have made themselves available for work assignments in the Gulf.


“I think there are going to be a lot of people who get a chance to go,” Downs said, “whether they want to or not.”


He also recognized problems looming for the bird rescue crews, given the magnitude of the oil spill. “Eventually, there’s going to be oil all over the Gulf Coast, and we’ll run out of places to release the [rescued] birds,” he said. “It seems like we’re spending a lot of money on every bird, but then you look at the pelicans, which were endangered down there not too long ago. Do we let them go extinct?”