Wildfire Hits San Juan Island National Historical Park | KNKX

Wildfire Hits San Juan Island National Historical Park

Jul 17, 2018

Hot, dry weather is partly to blame for a wildfire in an unexpected place. At San Juan Island National Historical Park, hot metal debris from a historic weapons demonstration on Sunday caused a blaze that quickly spread across parched grassland prairie.

Park staff say this kind of incident has happened at other national historical parks in the past, but not in recent memory at their location. San Juan Island National Historical Park includes American Camp and other artifacts from the famous Pig War of 1859 between the US and Britain.

Estimates on the size of the wildfire range from five to ten acres. No one was hurt and minimal damage was done. But the event provides a good reminder of how quickly blazes can get going after a long spell of hot and dry weather at this time of year.

The artillery demonstration is a routine part of visitor outreach at the park, and staff had water and fire extinguishers at hand. But Brandon Cadwell, the park’s chief for visitor and youth engagement, who is also the park’s historic weapons supervisor, says it wasn’t enough to stop a fast-moving fire like this one.

A freak wind came along right after he shot off a small mountain howitzer cannon. The gust fanned a smoldering piece of aluminum near some very dry grass.  Cadwell says his back was turned as he was conducting a subsequent safety motion of the cannon, so he didn’t see the fire starting soon enough to put it out.

“It had started to grow on the ground, and by the time that we could get to it, enough of a wind had come up that gave it a head for a fire and it started moving down the hill,” he said.  

He says a small spot of burning grass quickly turned into a larger, fast-moving blaze that required response from the local fire department. They were able to quickly contain it, but not before it burned though some brushy areas and scorched a few trees.

Cadwell says he took the normal precautions, looking at the weather beforehand and confirming that the conditions didn’t warrant calling off the demonstration.

“We had checked the weather and it wasn’t going to be too windy for the day,” he said. “And you know, even earlier – within the previous hour – I was taking a photo for some visitors in front of the flag pole. And I was just wishing for a little bit more wind to get that flag to unfurl. And I guess it’s just a lesson in be careful what you ask for. Because it came at the wrong time unfortunately, later.”

No critical habitat was harmed, but all live firing demonstrations at the park have been suspended until a review of the incident is completed and new safety measures are put in place.  Cadwell says those may include making sure the grass is cut shorter, having additional water supplies on hand and wetting down the field 20 yards in front the area where programs are taking place.