Keeping fires at bay

 Exploring fire safety at Blakely Island Field Station

The Blakely Island Field Station is a place of education, community and tranquility for the Seattle Pacific University community. But imagine a forest fire engulfing the 967-acre isolated campus and that idyllic scene changes fast.

To protect students, researchers, residents, wildlife and native vegetation, Blakely Island and the Field Station have a strict outdoor recreational burn ban. Sadly, making s’mores over a cracking campfire is prohibited, but the Atrium fireplace is a nice second choice.

Fire departments in the San Juan Islands typically implement these burn bans when humidity is low. This weather leads to dry trees and grasses, which are perfect for the rapid spread of wildfires. 

Three students from Dr. Elena Brezynski’s “Introduction to Biology Attributes” class roasting marshmallows in the fireplace (Isabella Tranello).

Fires can be dangerous for a place like Blakely Island, which has no official fire department, because it has several spots of dry vegetation among its beautiful hikes. The closest thing to a fire department on the island is two trucks that residents can use for small fires. 

Unlike Blakely Island, other surrounding islands, such as Orcas and Lopez Island, can adjust and remove burn bans when weather conditions improve because they have access to local fire departments. Fortunately, Blakey Island is protected under Washington State’s Department of Natural Resources because of its forest landscape. 

The DNR protection requires emergency and fire rescue teams to respond to incidents on the island. Chief Noel Monin leads one such team at the San Juan Fire Department and Rescue in Friday Harbor, Washington. 

Monin has an extensive history working among Washington’s wildland fire protection agencies despite only being the department’s chief for the last two months. One of these agencies is the United States Forest Service, where he gained extensive experience responding to emergencies and assisting during wildland fires. 

While working in his current district, Monin has responded to several incidents on Blakely Island. 

“I was on a wildfire at Blakely Island that had to be over a decade ago, and we think it was a lightning strike that occurred in the summer. We had to take our boat out there because we have a contract with the DNR as the local initial attack wildland response team,” Monin said. 

Knowing that Blakely Island has no fire department may strike fear in some potential visitors. However, according to Monin, the likeliness of a large, uncontainable fire occurring is unlikely. 

“We are in a marine environment that has very, very moist air. And what drives wildfire is a combination of things. It’s a science,” Monin said. “You have to have fuels that are drought-ridden, such as live fuels that are dry, dead fuels that are dry and fields that are conducive to fire spread. You also have to have topography that aligns with these things as well. So, in the San Juan Islands, we typically don’t have those alignments.”

Despite the unlikeliness of a fire, students and other visitors need to know what procedures are in place if a emergency like this occurs. Deborah Rodda claims that other caretakers on the island are great about banding together to fight small fires, but wildfires are an entirely different beast. 

“The other caretakers around the island will help each other by providing water from their supplies to put out the fires if they are small enough,” Deborah Rodda said. “Wildfires are more scary. We could call someone to put the fire out, but we would likely have to evacuate, which is sad. It would be the only thing we could do until it was put out.” 

Blakely relies on responses from departments such as Monin’s for larger fires as they lack the resources to handle them properly. Still, fire extinguishers are available all around the Field Station, such as in each of the four stairwells in the dormitories, the kitchen, the dining hall, the laboratory and next to the fireplace in the Atrium.

There are also fire alarms installed on the walls of each building, a fire blanket in the kitchen, sizeable red emergency boxes in various outdoor locations and a standpipe near the canoes and floating gazebo. 

Besides readily available fire extinguishers and fire prevention equipment, the Blakely Island Field Station caretakers, Brian and Deborah Rodda conduct routine maintenance around the island to protect the island, the residents and visitors from potential fires. 

Isabella Burnside, a junior ecology major and former summer employee at Blakely Island, worked alongside them and two other students in 2023.

“There’s so much dead wood, especially around campus,” Burnside said. “Over the summer, we took piles of it, hauled them into a truck and moved them to a burn site, where they’re allowed to burn once a year. It all gets burned at one time, and then it helps prevent the fires.” 

Although fires may not occur during a person’s visit to Blakely Island, Monin’s experiences prove it is not impossible. Other incidents of fires are outlined in JoAnn Roe’s book “Blakely Island in Time,” including a fire in 1956 that was started by a campfire on a beach at the southwest end of the plat and burned for 72 hours.

The fires described in this book are rare, and while there is always a potential risk for fire, the dedicated efforts of those who oversee the land have significantly reduced the danger. If burn bans are respected and proper fire safety procedures are practiced, Blakely Island’s atmosphere of relaxation and knowledge will continue to captivate visitors for generations. 

“There’s a danger, but it’s not as bad out here as people think. They look and see all these trees and bushes and think it’s just going to blow up and burn the whole island down,” Monin said. “That takes conditions, and those conditions don’t happen very often. We’re not running scared from nothing.” 

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