Firefighters contain Round Island wildfire in Bristol Bay walrus sanctuary

A plane over water
Jared Weber, a smokejumper spotter, watches the Walrus Islands fire on Tuesday evening, May 17, 2022. (Kevin Pabinquit/BLM Alaska Fire Service)

Firefighters on Wednesday contained a fire on Round Island that was caused by a staff burn barrel near Fish and Game’s campsite, said officials. The ground was damp, but sparks escaped and spread through dry grass to cover about 40 acres of the roughly 720-care island.

“It ignited dead grass that had been recently exposed after snowmelt, and the fire quickly took off from there and spread through the grass,” said Fish and Game’s lands and refuges manager Adam Dubour.

No one lives on the island year-round. But it’s an important site for subsistence hunts, which take place in the spring and fall. A limited number of people can also get permits to visit. Plus, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game staffs a camp on the island during the summer to conduct research and monitor walruses and other wildlife. The fire started near that campsite.

Dubour said staff thought it was safe to use the burn barrel because the ground was damp, but they didn’t take into account how dry the grass was.

“We’re still doing a debriefing and assessment of 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 got close to four buildings, but did not cause major damage, and no one was injured.

Sam Harrel, an information officer with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said the division sent an air tanker and six smoke jumpers from Fairbanks to the island.

“The tanker dropped water and the smokejumpers deployed,” he said. “I think we got six smokejumpers on that fire. They worked last night to stop the forward progression of that fire.”

In videos taken from an airplane responding to the fire, smoke streamed steadily from the eastern edge of the island.

Harrel said the vegetation and steep terrain were a challenge for firefighters. The crew worked Tuesday evening to contain most of the fire and mopped up hotspots on Wednesday. Harrel said they will continue to monitor the fire, but that it’s no longer a threat.

The island is one of four major haul out sites for Pacific walruses in Alaska. Each summer, thousands of males haul out on its beaches. Walruses are particularly sensitive to air traffic, and Dubour said Wednesday evening that they were likely disturbed by the smoke and aircraft that responded to the fire, but that wildlife hadn’t been harmed directly.

Get in touch with the author at izzy@kdlg.org or 907-842-2200.

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