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Firefighters are surviving Ohana Island

"Donald Elliot downs a swallow of fresh water distilled from salt water in the Ohana Island survival challenge camp.Matt Johnson / staff photosBy mid-afternoon Sunday, Donald Elliot was ready to beg to eat meal worms on ABC's Survivor series or to eat coconuts day after day on Gilligan's Island.In fact, Elliot and 13 other South Whidbey firefighters would have done just about anything, as long as someone gave them water and pointed them to a decent berry bush. Three days into Fire Protection District 3's Ohana (family) Island firefighter survival challenge, the group was dehydrated, hungry, dirty, and a little desperate. Elliot said the challenge - which is both a training exercise and a fund-raiser for the fire district - offers none of the creature comforts on reality TV shows, like water, food or a comfortable place to sleep. It's not like that Hollywood (crap) you see on TV, Elliot said.Camped in the woods at one end of rocky North Finger Island in the San Juans, the Ohana Island band is in the midst of an eight-day, seven-night battle against the power of nature. Even though it has good tree cover, the island is essentially of the desert variety with no ponds, streams or mud. Thanks to red tide, a toxic algae that infects shellfish, the island's mussels and clams are off limits, so the only foods available are the few fish the survivors can catch, some berries, bitter wild lettuce, and a few small, wild onions.The event didn't even start well. When the group flew to the island Friday aboard three float planes, they had to swim to shore because the island has no sandy beaches where an aircraft can float ashore. Survivor Bev Helland said swimming ashore in her underwear with her luggage wrapped in a plastic garbage bag was not easy. That water was so stinkin' cold I could hardly breathe, Helland said.In their first hours ashore, the group worked quickly to solve their food, water and shelter needs. Divided into separate committees, the survivors built a large lean-to for sleeping, started a fire with firefighter Tom Peterson's eyeglasses, scooped the last of the uninfected shellfish from the island's shores, and created a water distilling device from plastic sheets and an iron pot.Provisioned with 15 liters of fresh water and a large, plastic tub filled with rice, the group feasted Friday night. By Sunday, the survivors barely had enough food and water to keep them moving. Medic Bill Stolcis, who is the fisherman for the group, said holding a baited line in the water while sitting on a hot, dry beach was almost more than he could take.Everytime I stand up, I'm about ready to fall in the water, he said.As if finding food and water didn't take up enough of the group's energy, Ohana Island organizer and participant Darin Reid scheduled his fellow survivors to take part in daily co-opetitions. On the first day on the island, the group divided into small teams to determine who could break open a coconut the fastest. The winners received a liter of water each, while the entire group was able to use the coconuts.With their energy waning Sunday afternoon, the group met before the day's co-opetition to talk about its water supply. Though the distiller and other water collection methods were producing 5 liters a day, the group needed at least 14 liters for basic survival. Prior to the meeting, Reid wondered privately if the group still thought they were just extreme camping in spite of the water shortage.They haven't taken it seriously, he said.By the end of the meeting, they were. The group built a second distiller Sunday and agreed to forego rice in order to drink the cooking water. That convinced Reid that his fellow castaways were indeed survivors. On a march through the woods a half-hour later, he and the event's medical safety crew gave the group 10 gallons of water and promised an unlimited water supply for the remainder of their stay on the island.Even with the water, the survivors face other challenges before they leave North Finger Island Thursday. They need more food because at least one of the group members is having a blood sugar problem. They also need to find a way to stay warm during the cold island nights.The ultimate goal of the event is to keep all members of the group healthy and on the island. They don't have the option of kicking people off, as in television's Survivor. Reid said that would be the easiest way to ensure survival. He had originally planned to have eight people on the island. Fourteen, he said, might prove to be too many.The group returns to South Whidbey Thursday afternoon. "

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