Firefighters bring Round Island wildfires under control at Bristol Bay Walrus Sanctuary

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Smokejumper spotter Jared Weber watches the Walrus Islands fire on Tuesday evening, May 17, 2022. (Kevin Pabinquit/BLM Alaska Fire Service)

On Wednesday, firefighters brought a fire on Round Island under control that was started by a barrel burned by staff near the Fish and Game campsite, officials said. The ground was wet, but sparks escaped and spread through the dry grass to cover approximately 40 acres of the island with approximately 720 care.

“It ignited the dead grass that had recently been exposed after the snow melted, and the fire quickly took off from there and spread through the grass,” said Adam Dubour, lands and refuge manager. of Fish and Game.

Nobody lives on the island all year round. But it is an important site for subsistence hunts, which take place in spring and fall. A limited number of people can also obtain visit permits. Additionally, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game maintains a camp on the island during the summer to conduct research and monitor walruses and other wildlife. The fire broke out near this campsite.

Dubour said staff thought it was safe to use the burn barrel because the ground was wet, but they didn’t account for the dryness of the grass.

“We are still debriefing and assessing the situation to try to learn from it,” he said.

Staff first reported the fire to the Alaska Division of Forestry late Tuesday afternoon. It approached four buildings, but caused no major damage and no one was injured.

Sam Harrel, an information officer with the Alaska Forestry Division, said the division sent a tanker plane and six paratroopers from Fairbanks to the island.

“The tanker dumped water and the paratroopers deployed,” he said. “I think we have six smokers on this fire. They worked last night to stop the progression of this fire.

In videos taken from an aircraft responding to the blaze, smoke billowed steadily from the eastern edge of the island.

Harrel said the vegetation and steep terrain were a challenge for firefighters. The crew worked Tuesday night to contain most of the blaze and cleared hot spots on Wednesday. Harrel said they would continue to monitor the fire, but it was no longer a threat.

The island is one of four major Pacific walrus stranding sites in Alaska. Every summer, thousands of males wash up on its beaches. Walruses are particularly sensitive to air traffic, and Dubour said late Wednesday that they were likely disturbed by smoke and planes responding to the blaze, but wildlife was not directly harmed.

Contact the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

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