Oregon Coast Guard crew headed for gulf, spill duty

ASTORIA — For the 50-person crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Fir, the last week has been a whirlwind.

They'd just arrived home in Astoria from 30 days spent working on 17 buoys in river bars along the Oregon and Washington coast and were looking forward to a 3-week maintenance period.

Then new deployment orders came in on Saturday.

Word came that the ship would be heading to the Gulf of Mexico to respond to the massive British Petroleum oil spill — and they had six days to prepare.

The Coast Guard's role in the Deepwater Horizon response is like no other in history, said Cmdr. Mark Vlaun, Fir's commanding officer.

"It is unprecedented because of its size and duration," Vlaun said.

The ongoing gusher began in April, when a well exploded, killing 11 platform workers. Since then, the deep, underwater well has continued to leak oil, covering thousands of square miles of the ocean's surface with the toxic liquid and reaching several Gulf Coast states.

Today, after a round-the-clock effort to stock the ship for its journey down the West Coast and through the Panama Canal to the site, Fir gets underway.

"I never really anticipated bringing my ship to the Gulf of Mexico, but it's a credit to the crew that we can," Vlaun said. They compressed a process that would usually takes weeks into a handful of days, relying on the crew's familiarity and adaptability to get the ship ready for a journey into uncharted territory.

"We're literally doing it on the fly," he said. "We're using everything we know and putting it together to make it work."

There are 16 225-foot cutters identical to Fir within the Coast Guard fleet, and about half of them are already tackling the oil cleanup effort. Vlaun is in regular contact with many of the cutter captains, and has tracked their progress and techniques so far.

Because of the nature of this disaster, making educated guesses about how to best tackle cleanup has become standard practice for many of the crews who have been in charge since the saga began, Vlaun said.

Fir is uniquely suited to the rugged task at hand, said Vlaun, because of the heavy duty jobs it was designed to do.

The cutter's main task while at home on the West Coast is servicing over 150 aids to navigation — usually buoys — from an area that stretches from the Oregon-California border to the Canadian border and includes the Columbia River, Grays Harbor and Puget Sound. Fir also works with the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to maintain five weather buoys and performs fisheries law enforcement, boating safety, search and rescue and waterway security.

The steel buoys Fir services can be up to 9 feet wide and weigh up to 9 tons. They are pulled from the water using a 40-foot-long crane.

But Fir was also designed with a spilled oil recovery system, which has been fully loaded into the ship's cargo hold. On Monday, the crew off loaded about 60,000 pounds of buoy sinkers, chain and other equipment that won't be needed down south, and replaced it with oil booms and skimming equipment on Tuesday.

After the roughly two-week transit to the gulf area, Vlaun will have a better take on where the ship will be headed and just what they'll be doing.

What is clear, however, is that they'll be gathering the oily sludge that has accumulated on the water's surface into a large bag-like container — called a drogue — and then transferring it to a collection barge alongside Fir.

"The oil doesn't come onto the ship," he said, which will allow the crew to keep working as long as their supplies hold out, if needed.

Using reverse osmosis, the ship can make drinkable water from sea water, but not if it's contaminated with oil, Vlaun said.

For the last four days, the stream of vehicles delivering supplies to Fir has been almost constant, Vlaun said.

They've ordered more than $20,000 of food, filling the walk-in freezer and dry storage room so full there's barely room to walk.

Petty Officer 1st Class Joseph Cleary runs the kitchen, and said he's stocked local favorites as much as possible because once they leave home port, there's no telling where food may come from next.

"We ordered more, and we packed it to the gills. We didn't make menus, we just ordered the product," Cleary said.

Cleary bought different kinds of food, knowing that it'll only take days to leave the cool Oregon temperatures behind once the trip starts. Popsicles, a snow cone machine and a barbecue were purchased for the assignment.

Other preparations have been made to help the ship and crew adjust to the hike in temperature, Vlaun said. The ship has two air conditioning units, but only one is routinely used at home. The second was serviced, and should see regular use in a matter of days when temperatures soar into the 80s and 90s.

The ship is also cooled with sea water, and since that water is cold up north, the system will have to work harder to do the cooling in the gulf, Vlaun said. And that water could be contaminated, so the crew ordered three times the number of filters it would ordinarily keep on hand.

Petty Officer second-class Shawn Eggert worked 31 days in the Joint Information Center at the Unified Command in Robert, La., as part of the Deepwater Horizon response effort.

Eggert, a public affairs officer stationed in Astoria, spent 31 days running from one office to another trying to find answers to reporters' questions. He returned home in early June, and could go back as soon as August.

Between 15 and 20 local Coast Guard staff have been sent to the gulf to assist in the effort, and will put their engineering, administrative and other skills to work, said Cmdr. Bill Timmons, the operations officer of Group/Air Station Astoria. More are scheduled to head out in the coming weeks, Timmons said.

"Depending on how long this thing goes on — and it appears it will go on for the foreseeable future — we'll do our part just like everyone else in the Coast Guard," he said.

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