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USC Wrigley Marine Science Center Copes with Catalina Fire

Wildfire incinerates power and communication lines to USC island research facility

USC Wrigley Marine Science Center Copes with Catalina Fire

Just hours after the wildfire on Catalina Island started May 10 near Avalon, the USC Wrigley Marine Science Center on the island lost all electricity and communications. Though the fire never got within 10 miles of the facility, it incinerated miles of transmission cables and 150 power poles, leaving Wrigley Institute staff on the island without phone, Internet and electrical service a few hours before sunset.

The sudden loss of power threatened to upset scores of ongoing experiments, but USC staff and scientists on the island and mainland took quick action to save the experiments, the fish and other sea creatures that are part of their work.

Some semblance of normality was restored to the USC facility four days later — on Monday — shortly after two large diesel-powered generators were delivered by barge.

“We’re beginning to bring students, researchers and construction workers back to the lab,” Tony Michaels, director of the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies, said that day. “We are back to full science functionality but still have limited communications and no Internet. Some of our staff members are coming off of the island periodically to catch up on e-mail and voicemail.”

Full power and communications might not be available for days or even weeks, but Wrigley Institute staff is getting ready to resume business, even if it’s not business-as-usual.

The marine research center is operated by the Wrigley Institute and is part of USC College.

Though the facility was not in the fire’s path, the sudden loss of power and communications forced USC staff on the island and mainland to swift action to first protect staff and workers, and then safeguard their research.

Wrigley Institute scientists who live on the island relocated with their children to a hotel near Long Beach. Construction workers building a new conference facility at the USC site were sent home. A group of visiting students from Northeastern University in Massachusetts had to leave with their instructor and finish their marine science experiments in a lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

After the safety of staff, students and visitors was assured, Wrigley Institute staff worked to save animals and experiments, running numerous trips across the channel to ferry sea life to USC’s University Park campus and supplies to the island.

Recirculation pumps on an educational “touch tank” were down, so staff moved starfish and sea urchins out of the tank and back to their native waters in the adjacent Big Fisherman’s Cove. They took oysters — part of a long-running experiment on genetic expression — and hung them in baskets from the side of skiffs moored near the waterfront. They even wired a submersible bilge pump to a truck battery and used it to fill a giant tank with seawater that would refresh water in tanks filled with white sea bass. The improvised “bucket brigade” kept the fish alive and maintained the continuity of an experiment that’s more than a year old.

Wrigley Institute staff on both the island and the mainland worked to save experimental samples stored in refrigerators and freezers on the island. Some of them included DNA samples in special freezers that operate at minus 80 degrees Centigrade. The samples were taken out of the freezers, packed in dry ice, hauled to the mainland and carried onto the main USC campus last Friday while commencement exercises were still underway. John Heidelberg, associate professor of biological sciences in USC College and a resident of the island, ran small generators non-stop to keep other refrigerators on the island working.

“The island staff did a heroic job,” said Michaels, a professor of biological sciences in the College. “They saved the living organisms we’re holding at the lab and they saved the samples in our refrigerators — and the freezers had a decade worth of science in them.”

With the help of the two truck-size, diesel-powered generators delivered, the Wrigley Marine Science Center is running at something close to full capacity. The facility’s Catalina Hyperbaric Chamber is operational as are the kitchens at the cafeteria. The disruption in phone and Internet connections remains, but satellite telephones are offering some link between the island and the mainland. (Soon after the fire broke out May 10, connections for digital cell phones went down but a USC College biology graduate student, Pauline Yu, was able to reach the mainland using an older analog cell phone.)

“The full repair of the power and phone systems will take months,” Michaels said. “Jury-rigged communications may be up in another week or so, and when that happens, we will be functioning as normal. The first of our summer researchers arrives on May 21, and we should have all of our systems back in place by then through one mechanism or another.”