Much of the seabird population and wildlife on Protection Island may have escaped harm from last week’s fire that consumed approximately 25 acres on the south-western side of the 379-acre …
Much of the seabird population and wildlife on Protection Island may have escaped harm from last week’s fire that consumed approximately 25 acres on the south-western side of the 379-acre federally protected refuge, according to experts who visited the island.
The blaze, which was visible for miles due to a large smoke plume that stretched across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, caused immediate alarm throughout the region.
The situation looked dire early on.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s website, 70 percent of nesting seabirds in the Puget Sound area and Straits of San Juan de Fuca depend on the island’s unique habitat, including 50 percent of the last remaining tufted puffins in Puget Sound.
And it is currently pupping season for up to 1,000 harbor seals that inhabit Protection Island.
Rebecca Bennett of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Police described the place that burned as “mostly hilly grassland area on the western hills of the island, and around three-quarters of a gravel spit containing driftwood logs and reeds.”
For several days after the fire was suppressed, USFW officers worked on-site to suppress remaining hot spots on the island.
In an email to The Leader, Bennett said WDFW enforcement officers had investigated the western sand spit.
A patrol boat deployed an officer via a beach landing to assess the damage on the west side of the area torched by the blaze.
“While this “area [is] popular with harbor seal weaning pups,” Bennett said no injured, dead seals or marine mammals were discovered.
Marty Bluewater, the sole private landowner on Protection Island and its only inhabitant, was not on-island when the fire broke out.
He was en route to Seattle via boat, and at around 9:30 a.m. that morning, he snapped some photos as he left, never imagining the next images he’d see of his home would be clouded with smoke.
When the fire broke out around 11 a.m. last Tuesday, misinformation was rampant.
“I kept hearing conflicting things,” Bluewater said.
Dreading the worst-case scenario, he asked friends from Cape George to make the trek to the island to retrieve his personal effects.
After a harrowing 24 hours, Bluewater was cleared to return home.
Although the island is protected land and access is limited, many members of the public take proprietary interest in the island. As recently as Monday,
Aug. 9, Bluewater reported that some fisherman had stopped to explore the island, despite signage saying the area is closed to the public.
“In the old days there were people who would come and go,” Bluewater said.
Some have not been careful with their beach fires, he added.
Once he woke late at night to see a glow below his house; it was a fire he ended up fighting for five or six hours. Bluewater said he realizes how lucky he was to have spotted the fire at all that time.
According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service’s most recent 15-year Conservation Comprehensive Plan for Protection Island, all vessels are “to maintain a 200-yard conservation lease and tideland withdrawal … to reduce human disturbance.” No access is permitted, but that mandate is sometimes ignored.
According to the plan, Protection Island is one of the most arid climates in Western Washington and has seen scattered fires in the past.
Between 1944 and the 1950s, at least two major fires burned most of the uplands on Protection Island, and there was “another major fire on Violet Point (on the east end of the island) in 1962.”
Fire season on the island begins earlier — in April instead of June — and runs later, to October, than the rest of Olympic Peninsula.
Bluewater knows firsthand that standing dry forage in late summer is a huge fire risk.
“That grass is like burning matches almost,” he said, and added that the meadows where resident deer graze are very dry at the present.
According to Bluewater, there isn’t much on Protection Island to use against fighting fires.
There was a wild-land type “portable fire truck” stationed on the island at one point, but Bluewater said he doesn’t know where it ended up.
He said he hoped that government agencies see this recent fire as a motivation to outfit the refuge with equipment for future emergencies.
Protection Island is one of the last enclaves of undisturbed nesting habitat in the Salish Sea.
Most sea birds are “site-faithful,” returning to the same locations annually to breed, nest and raise their young.
As nearby islands like San Juan and Whidbey become further developed, the loss of habitat pushes even more avians into an already limited environment.
John Piatt, a research wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geographical Society, said that Protection Island is home to a “globally significant population of birds.”
Piatt lives in Port Townsend, and has studied rhinoceros auklets for decades.
“To have a fire at this critical stage of breeding at a refuge is just over the top,” Piatt said.
Peter Hodum, a professor in the biology department and Environmental Policy and Decision Making Program at the University of Puget Sound, has monitored avian activity on Protection Island since 2006.
He works with Scott Pierson, a research scientist for USFW, and Tom Good, a Research Fisheries biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, to monitor the four dominant species of water birds on Protection Island: the glaucous-winged gull (Larus glauescens); the pigeon guillemot (Cepphus columba); the tufted puffin (Fratercula cirrhata); and the rhinoceros auklet, (Cerorhinca monocerata).
Hodum was part of a group who went on-island Friday, Aug. 6 to determine the extent of the fire’s impact on the water-bird community.
The group found the fire had burned through several of nine designated avian monitoring areas on the island.
“It was pretty jarring, to see a place you feel a really strong connection to … suffering like that,” Hodum said.
He said one of the most important bird habitats in the Salish Sea had nearly come to utter destruction:
“If the wind had been out of the south, the entire island would have burned. We’re fortunate it wasn’t worse,” he said.
Like Bluewater and Piatt, Hodum has his suspicions that the Aug. 3 fire was human-caused; there was no lightning, no one on-island who was authorized to be there, and temperatures were not unseasonably high.
He said a small boat was reportedly seen right off Kanem Point, a long spit area, where the fire seems to have started.
“The leeward driftwood was reduced to cinders,” Hodum said.
It destroyed pigeon guillemot nests on Kanem Point, he added.
Bluewater sees the crucial habitat Protection Island provides, daily, a rare opportunity.
“There’s an eagles’ nest out here that’s been here since 1976,” Bluewater said.
“They just keep adding sticks. I could probably lay down in it,” he added.
There are multiple pairs of birds that return every year, Bluewater said.
Two different pairs of gulls have subdivided a mowed area of his yard and won’t allow any other birds to nest there.
And there’s a family of swallows who build a nest under the eaves of his house that come back year after year.
“It was very sad walking the area and seeing the gulls that lost their nests … looking for their babies,” Bluewater said.
Local birders often associate Protection Island with puffins. The species most folks are familiar with is the iconic tufted puffin (a Washington state endangered species) with a bright orange bill.
But most folks don’t know how few of these animals call the island home: Just five or six breeding pairs who hatch a single chick annually.
Hodum said that the fire had come very close to the cliffs on the southwest side of the island where the tufted puffins nest.
Since the vegetation was not burned, Hodum was optimistic about the state of the nests.
Rhinoceros auklets are also puffins, but they nest underground.
Male “rhinoceros” auklets, named for the facial plumes rising from their beaks, dig underground nests, or burrows, ranging from 2- to 9-feet deep. Breeding pairs meet back together at their burrow each year to raise a single chick.
Hodum estimated that there are about 50,000 rhinoceros auklet burrows on Protection Island – burrows located directly in the path of the fire.
Amazingly, Hodum said the team “didn’t find any dead chicks in burrows.”
When a fiberoptic infrared camera was threaded into a sample of nests, 40 percent held live chicks; 60 percent were empty.
As the fire burned during the time that rhinoceros auklets fledge, leaving their nests to go to sea, Hodum hoped the empty burrows mean that young birds made their way off-island.
Hodum did discover a few dead near-fledging rhinoceros auklets on the surface of the ground, untouched by predators.
Since rhinoceros auklets do not typically leave their burrows in daylight, Hodum speculated that smoke, stress, or heat could have caused the deaths – perhaps even starvation if parent birds were spooked from returning to their burrows.
“We have something to conserve, practically in Port Townsend’s back yard,” he added. “On a global level, [this is] one of the largest breeding colonies for rhinoceros auklets in the world.”
Hodum said the Protection Island fire is a “wakeup call.”
“There was real damage done to the island. Sea birds died in the fire,” Hodum said. “We need to do everything in our power to keep this jewel safe.”
After the fire was reported, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife took the lead on sequestering the blaze.
The state agency was notified of the fire via the Washington State Patrol at 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 4, and a Washington Fish and Wildlife patrol boat near Marrowstone Island provided the first out-of-county response, arriving at approximately noon.
They were preceded by the first respounding vessel, a Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office patrol boat, which left soon after the WDFW arrived.
As part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, the WDFW has jurisdiction over the 48 acres on the west end of the island known as the Zella M. Schultz Seabird Sanctuary.
Rebecca Bennett of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Police said multiple entities merged to fight the fire, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Federal Wildlife Refuge; the United States National Park Service; and the Department of Natural Resources, which manages the surrounding aquatic area as the Protection Island Aquatic Reserve.
Additionally, Bennett said a helicopter from Coast Guard Air Station Port Angeles did a fly-over to assess damage.
East Jefferson Fire Rescue Chief Bret Black said the fire department received “a surge of calls” last Tuesday about the fire after a large plume of smoke could be seen coming from the island north of town.
As complaints of smoke grew, East Jefferson Fire and Rescue mobilized to investigate the source.
But once the fire was determined to be on Protection Island, it was out of East Jefferson’s jurisdiction, Black said.
“I’ve worked on fires in national reserves before,” Black said, adding that there is strict protocol to protect such delicate ecosystems.
The Protection Island fire is still under investigation. Anyone with information surrounding this incident is encouraged to contact Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Enforcement at 877-933-9847, via website, or through text message. Photos can be sent to the department at TIP411 (847411).