Valuable Lessons

Since my last blog in June, a lot has happened on the field ops side, including (and especially!) the Grove Incident in Ventura.  Approach of a holiday weekend, once again, signaled the springing into action of the OWCN Management Team (two years ago the OWCN was activated on the 4th of July for the Tesoro Spill, last year we were activated for the Refugio Incident on Memorial Day, and this year we were activated on the 4th of July for Grove).  I’m starting to dread holidays.

As I mentioned in my last post, in an attempt to better prepare for inland expansion, the Field Ops team is increasing the amount and types of field equipment (both hazing and recovery), and pre-staging them in several parts of the state.  In addition, we have recently expanded the core hazing team by incorporating staff biologists from the Institute for Wildlife Studies (IWS).  These biologists normally work on projects scattered throughout the state, and thus are likely to be in relative proximity to any given inland spill.  The Grove Incident allowed us to test our initial inland preparedness plans, as well as highlight several issues we will likely face in future inland spills, including:

  1. Difficulty of access to the spill site for initial recon and recovery, as well as setting up of hazing equipment. This was the case at the Grove Incident due to the steep walls of the canyon, heavy brush, and requirements for 40-hr HAZWOPER training and respirators for anyone going into the canyon.  Of course, that was where we needed our field teams to be, and this delayed some essential parts of our initial response.  Nevertheless, safety of our personnel was uppermost in our minds, and though lack of access was frustrating, we were glad that the safety officers were looking out for us.  Several Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) personnel, who were allowed to go into the canyon, helped us with some of the initial needs.  Ultimately, we were able to gain access into the oiled portion of the canyon and deploy both hazing and recovery equipment, but we were closely monitored at all times by air

    Mylar streams along the creek bed to deter birds.

    quality monitors.

  2. Difficulty of deploying even the simplest hazing devices (such as mylar tape) because of inability to access the spill site. We were able to get OSPR personnel to put some mylar up for us in the spill zone, and we placed restrictive fencing and hazing devices (mylar, security lighting, predator lights, and trail cameras) in the areas of the streambed we were allowed into, both upstream and downstream of the spill.  The idea behind deploying this equipment was to deter and restrict wildlife from walking along the streambed and into the spill area.  Once we had access to the spill area we deployed additional mylar, which helped prevent birds from coming into contact with the oil, and predator lights to reduce the likelihood of animals like foxes, coyotes, etc. from walking into the oiled areas.
  3. Difficulty of identifying which species were getting oiled. We quickly realized we had no idea what animals (species and numbers) were around the oil due to the heavy brush and restricted access.  We were able to check flighted birds for oil with binoculars if they were outside the restricted area, and that allowed us to focus on capturing any that were oiled.  In order to know what animals might be moving into the oiled area at night, and their oiling status, we borrowed trail cameras from another project.  These cameras were essential in providing information on the use of the area by animals during the night, and this made us realize that we needed to add trail cameras to our own field ops inventory.
  4. Difficulty capturing oiled animals. With the exception of one oiled woodrat, and a few animals like a gray fox seen on camera with slight oiling on its feet, the remainder of observed oiled animals were flighted birds that had to be captured in traps.  No more setting out into the field with a long-handled dip net, like in marine spills.  Instead, we had to utilize bait stations and a variety of trap styles and sizes in areas where oiled birds (jays and towhees, mainly) were spotted.  We also used mist nets to survey the bird populations that we couldn’t easily observe directly for oiling status.

    Grove SCJA

    Western Scrub Jay in Grove area.

  5. Difficulty assessing smaller ground animals such as rodents and reptiles that were difficult to observe on the trail cameras. We ultimately set large numbers of rodent and reptile traps in order to survey the populations in the area of the spill, and found minimal oil presence on the animals.  We realized that this kind of trapping should be done proactively and as early in the spill as possible to quickly identify the animals that had more significant oil before they simply disappeared into the brush due to illness or death.
  6. Challenges of doing hazing and recovery activities at the same time. Because this spill required active hazing, but also required recovery personnel ready to pick up any affected animals, we quickly realized that field teams that combined hazing and recovery personnel would be most effective, although this presented more of a challenge with regards to coordination and flexibility for both the field teams and the field supervisor. In future spills we anticipate that having field teams knowledgeable and capable of performing both hazing and recovery tasks will be much more important than having these streams separate.  We are hopeful that our new OWCN training program (officially to be launched in September) will better prepare for responders that are cross-trained for both types of field activities, as well as increase their comfort level in using different field techniques needed for inland spills.
Grove Incident Photo

OWCN Field Ops Team: Richard Grise (International Bird Rescue), Gayle Uyehara (California Wildlife Center), Jake Manley (Institute for Wildlife Studies), and Jamie Bourdon (UC Davis).

In summary, the Grove Incident gave us lots of food for thought, and gave us an opportunity to try out new equipment, techniques, and work with new personnel on our team.  We really appreciated the “old hands” that came from Member Orgs to contribute their experience from other spills, and the integration with the IWS biologists who brought lots of hazing and capture knowledge of inland animals.  I thought everyone did great work over really long days (daylight to dark in many cases), and am extremely appreciative of their efforts and willingness to go above and beyond.

Over the next few weeks we will be having several meetings to talk about “lessons learned” and how we can improve in the future, but we feel that we can now go forward in a more informed way to prepare for the next spill, whether inland or marine, and will be better able to meet the next set of challenges.

– Winston

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