It could have been worse. So says Peter Hodum, of the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, after a day assessing the biological damage from last week’s wildfire on the Protection Island National Wildlife Refuge..
While four species of resident seabirds were considered at risk from the flames and smoke, the worst toll appears to be to newly-hatched pigeon guillemots, many of which nest amid the driftwood on Kanem Spit, the sandy point that extends west from the bluffs.
The driftwood was “incinerated” by the flames, he says. “Adults are probably fine, because they were out feeding on the straits. But the chicks in the nests could not have survived.”
The good news is that the winds last Tuesday were light and tended to blow the flames and smoke off the island rather than up the steep slopes toward the nesting grounds for thousands of glaucous-winged gulls, rhinoceros auklets and the few remaining tufted puffins.
The puffins are “likely unaffected,” Hodum says. Similarly, infrared examinations of auklet burrows revealed no dead chicks.
He found bird carcasses across the island, but most seem to have succumbed to normal predators – eagles, ravens and other larger birds, he says. “In short, it was not as severe as we anticipated.”
The cause of the fire is under investigation, but it was likely ignited by people – even though the island was believed to be unoccupied when the fire started last Tuesday morning.
“I think the main message is this,” Hodum says. “It was human caused, and did real damage. But maybe it’s an opportunity for us to find ways to protect this jewel, the most important seabird nesting area in the Puget Sound area.”
Top photo: Looking west towards Kanem Spit, the area most affected by the fire. (Peter Hodum photo)