Kenai Refuge Fire Management Officer Doug Newbould traveled to northwest Florida to help the response to the BP oil disaster last month.
Newbould is one of 43 U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials from the Alaskan region to join the effort in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the agency. The refuge officer said that he used his knowledge of disaster management systems and experience in the 49th state to help with the spill.
"They like having Alaskans down there. Most of us have lived here for awhile and understand the effects of oil spills," he said. "The long term effects."
The refuge officer acted as a group supervisor for the Florida panhandle. He made sure that workers received the food, lodging and transportation necessary to complete their jobs. Newbould oversaw approximately 300 miles of coastline littered with white sand beaches, bays, marshes and wetlands.
"The east end becomes very marshy," he said. "It's a very convoluted shoreline."
He began the second week of June managing eight people, but his team grew to 30 as petroleum tar balls, semi-solid blobs of oil, appeared on the beaches.
"They are the harbingers of the main body of oil," he said. "They can be anything from the BB-sized to great big globs the size of a sea turtle."
His fire management experience with the "instant command system" helped him coordinate response teams to recover birds harmed by the spill. He handed out cards with a wildlife hotline number to report hurt or sick animals. He said that calls from Florida bounced over to a unified command in Houston, which informed Fish and Wildlife in Mobile, Alabama, then relayed the information to his mobile recovery unit.
The bird catching was a difficult task because the animals weren't very grateful to receive human help. Flying birds flapped away and diving birds shot underwater when his team attempted to bring them in. The officer said that the team looked for birds under cover of darkness, when they are more docile.
"We'd shine a spotlight on them, throw a net over them and catch them," he said.
As a supervisor, Newbould resolved any conflicts that occurred during the operations. He often receive multiple reports of the same bird in different locations. His team frequently called the original source if they left a cell phone number to verify the location. Occasionally his people responded to a call and found another crew dealing with the solution, or an endangered species turned out to be something more common. Other times his team arrived on the scene and found a healthy bird.
"It seemed like there were a lot of wasted efforts at the time," he said.
The officer said that the area hosts a number of diverse habitats, many of which support endangered species. Sea turtles lay eggs on the beaches, which are also home to ocean and shore birds. The bays and marshes along the shore host a variety plant life, as well.
Newbould found the job rewarding and said he wants to returning during winter when migratory birds move into the area.
"There will be a continual need as long as there's oil on the surface," he said.
Tony Cella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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