Although firefighters are called on to deal with everything from wildfires to hurricanes, the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf was a new experience for the many Middle Georgia firefighters who spent weeks or months helping clean up oil and recover wounded animals.
The majority of Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge employees did a stint in the Gulf, said Carolyn Johnson, assistant manager for the refuge. The Georgia Forestry Commission also sent many workers to help with the spill, caused when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded April 20.
It dumped millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf until BP managed to cap the well in early August.
“I had no technical expertise on this,” said Karl Schmidt, a forester at the wildlife refuge whose job in Florida and Alabama this summer was to reduce or mitigate harm to wildlife caused by the cleanup itself.
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“It was overwhelming to figure out what to do, because I don’t have a clue what I’m doing here,” he said. “What do I know about tar balls? What do I know about hand crews? What do I know about any of this stuff?”
But he learned, sometimes with the help of experts from private companies who were working to determine the best methods for cleanup. Schmidt was on the beach every day advising cleanup crews on how to avoid harming endangered sea turtles and beach mice, sea oats — and the dune system itself.
Schmidt was amazed as he watched a huge slick of oil wash ashore for several days at Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.
“It was a serious amount of oil,” he said. “You think of waves breaking and the white foam — it was all black. It smelled like a gas station.”
Mats of tar developed, sometimes a foot thick, before being buried in about 4 inches of sand. Contractors ended up trying to remove it with front-end loaders.
“One bite into the sand, and it’s completely overflowing with oil,” Schmidt recalled.
There was no place to park the heavy equipment near the beach. A small, distant parking lot had to be connected with wooden mats to the beach to try to reduce dune damage, he said. After the oil had been dug up, it had to be shifted two or three times between different equipment capable of driving on different surfaces — and because equipment that had been on the beach was considered contaminated.
Oil contamination was less severe where Schmidt worked at Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida. There, workers raked tar balls into piles by hand and gathered them up.
Even with all the care taken at both locations, Schmidt saw dead or injured stingrays and birds. He recalls ghost crabs, named for their white hue, sidestepping across the beach in shades of yellow and brown. Schmidt and his team began each day checking for the nests of endangered and threatened sea turtles to try to save the eggs.
Harm and good in cleanup
But at times there seemed no way to resolve the quandary between the harm and the good created by the cleanup. For example, “pompom booms,” which look like a cheerleader’s pompoms, absorb oil in the tidal zone. But they also block sea turtles from swimming ashore to nest.
“And that was something that we never really worked out what to do,” Schmidt said. “At the end of the day, there was no good thing to do, so it would change each day.”
John Mason, a prescribed fire specialist at Piedmont, spent a month managing a helicopter that was surveying for distressed birds in areas that were hard to reach by foot or boat.
The helicopter crew would call in their find and a ground crew would head out to pick up the bird, Mason said. Similar teams scouted for turtles, marine mammals and fish.
Chris Buchanan was one of the people picking up birds from remote areas during the two weeks he was stationed near Destin, Fla. Buchanan, a Georgia Forestry Commission ranger for Jones and Jasper counties, said the oil damage was not bad in that area although they did find ducks, laughing gulls and northern gannets that were injured or slightly oiled.
When handling oiled birds, workers had to wear gloves and suits to avoid contaminating them. Living birds were taken to rehabilitation centers and the bodies of the dead were collected and carefully tagged, he said.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency website, state and federal wildlife teams have captured 2,023 visibly oiled birds, of which 997 have been rehabilitated and released. Another 4,122 visibly oiled birds were collected dead. In addition, 13,523 sea turtle hatchlings have been released on Florida’s east coast after the eggs were relocated away from the oil.
Georgia firefighters were often handling wildlife for the first time — at least for work — but other aspects of the oil spill response were new, too. It was a slow-unfolding disaster, for one thing.
Firefighters are often among the first to help in a disaster because they’re familiar with the incident command system used by emergency services.
But the government never took over and the oil spill cleanup response remained loosely under the control of BP, Mason said. A mix of BP contractors, government officials, the Coast Guard, biologists and volunteers worked together.
“It was really a challenge to get all those people to get things accomplished efficiently,” said Mason, who also supervised ground crews who were recovering wildlife in Florida for one of his stints. “What would normally take a day to get accomplished would take a week or two weeks.”
Some of the volunteers weren’t used to field work or the harsh summer conditions on the Gulf Coast, when temperatures soared to more than 115 degrees with the heat index, Mason said.
The job also required more interaction with the public than a wildfire response. Some residents unleashed their frustration with BP on the firefighters, who were sometimes mistaken for BP contractors, Mason said.
But most were grateful, the responders said.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.