A Rookie at an Oil Spill Drill


By Justin Cox

When I got word that the Oiled Wildlife Care Network would be hosting an oil spill drill up in the Feather River Canyon outside Quincy, CA, I immediately asked the team if I could come along for the ride. They happily set aside a seat in the van and looped me into the operation.

As the communications lead for the UC Davis One Health Institute and the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, my efforts are spread across many programs and projects. I’m familiar with a ton of amazing work that’s happening around the world, but only occasionally do I get to immerse myself into one program for days at a time. The drill in Quincy was a chance to do that with the OWCN, and it impressed me from top to bottom. It was a chance to get a glimpse of the gravity and seriousness of a spill without the chaos and real stakes of an actual disaster.

I spent part of the drive up dialing in a couple of cameras I would use to document the trip, but I put the gear away as we crept into the Sierras and the drive became increasingly scenic. We pulled into Quincy around noon and ate some packed lunches that had been ordered prior to our arrival. That might seem like a subtle detail in this blog post, but it’s very much part of the larger equation: in the event of a spill, the dozens of folks arriving to respond would need to be fed. That’s not supplemental to the larger operation; it’s essential. An OWCN drill has people dedicated to such logistics.



The next four hours involved the construction of a tent city at the Plumas County Fairgrounds in Quincy, which is where the bulk of the drill was hosted. In coastal spills, much of the oiled animal intake and cleaning would happen at designated facilities within the network, but that’s not the case inland. There are far fewer facilities because the threat of inland oil spills only began to skyrocket in the last few years, prompting an expansion of the OWCN’s coverage territory. That expansion, as regular readers of this blog surely already know, has come in the wake of increased inland drilling and fracking in the United States, which has resulted in more oil moving across the continent by train and pipeline.

Because there aren’t fully functional, pre-established oiled wildlife facilities scattered across the center of the state, the OWCN must be ready to rapidly erect its own upon arrival. So that’s the first thing we did in Quincy after we downed our sandwiches. Large metal cases were rolled out of trailers and four giant heavy-duty tents were unpacked and snapped together.

We held a casual open house at the site when we were finished for any locals and emergency managers in the region who wanted to know about spill risk in the area and the OWCN’s role in response. After that, we grabbed dinner and headed back to the hotel for some sleep, as the next day was going to be an early and busy day.

The next day, OWCN Director Mike Ziccardi kept the circumstances of the “spill” a secret up until the moment it began, at which point he took the stage as puppet master, a role he seemed to deviously enjoy. Everyone had a job, from the people washing the animals (stuffed ones for the purpose of the drill) to drivers transporting them from the derailment site to the fairgrounds. Not only would the team, with its various roles assigned, act upon the initial release of information from Mike, but they would have to react on the fly to animals being “captured” in the field (with their medical findings accompanying them in their carrier boxes) as well as curveballs (or injects) being introduced throughout the day as well.


That included me, as one of the main people charged with communicating the details to the public. It was clear from the get-go that internet connection would be spotty (to put it lightly), not only for me and my attempts to blog and tweet, but also for responders transmitting data about oiled animals and teams working to order equipment, arrange laundry, and book hotel rooms on the fly.

My role in the day was interesting in that I was there in part to document the drill for future storytelling, but also to be a part of the real-time simulation. Communications is a massive part of an oil spill, because not only can you count on news media to descend upon the site when a spill happens, but also unsanctioned responders with good intentions are inclined to get involved, many without proper training. Haphazard exposure to oil is dangerous for animals and people alike, so one of my injects was to draft a blog post laying out the dangers and explaining how people could proactively help without getting in harm’s way.

I haven’t mentioned yet that it poured rain for much of the drill, which added another layer of unscripted challenges. It dumped so hard at one point that I packed away my Canon for a few hours and stuck with a waterproof GoPro for photos. That’s an inject Mike Ziccardi can’t take credit for. Or can he?


I found the whole drill experience to be incredibly impressive. The OWCN breaks its mission into four “Rs,” one of which is Readiness. (The others are Response, Research and Reaching Out). Massive oil spills that affect wildlife don’t happen daily in California, so it’s not like our team is scrambling around the state chasing spills in a constant tizzy. But spills do happen frequently, and in many cases the effects are massive and require many months of devoted attention. Oil spill readiness and response requires quickness and coordination which is only achieved through intensive planning and practice. Drills offer the opportunity to test out the planning and to practice a response.

As a first-time participant in a drill, it was awesome to watch as more than 80 people suspended reality for two days to mobilize and respond to a disaster that wasn’t actually happening. We’ll all be better for it when a disaster actually does happen.

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