Condor Chicks Evacuated as Wildfire Advances on Sanctuary
• Thousands of Northern California Blazes Move Southward with No End in Sight
BY REBECCA DMYTRYK
BY REBECCA DMYTRYK
It was pretty amazing. We were watching last week’s lightning storm roll into Monterey Bay. It had been a brutally hot day until high clouds moved in from the West. Within minutes it turned cool and breezy. We hiked to the top of our hill where we have a panoramic view of the bay. The clouds were wild—one dark formation looked like a creepy cobweb. Lightning, thunder, wind, and a few drops of rain. Sand devils rose from the dunes at Moss Landing.
A branched strike of lightning ignited the Corral de Tierra fire in Carmel Valley. While small grass fires flared up all around the Monterey Bay area, farther south, along the coast of Big Sur, lightning ignited heavy brush in a small rugged canyon. That fire became know as the Gallery Fire. Since June 21, the Gallery Fire merged with the Basin Fire in the Ventana Wilderness. Firefighters have predicted that it will merge with the Indians Fire—a blaze started by a campfire June 8.
Nearly 90,000 acres of wilderness have been destroyed. In the early stages of the Gallery Fire it was not clear whether a group of captive California condors should be disturbed and moved from their flight pens in a remote area, just south of Big Sur. The eight birds, one adult male mentor and seven juveniles, are part of a reintroduction program administrated by the Ventana Wildlife Society.
Their secluded condor release site is used to prepare captive-born condors for life in the wild—acclimating them to their surroundings and allowing them to socialize with wild condors that visit the facility. Hoi, the adult condor, mentors the youngsters, teaching them social etiquette and survival skills. With only 315 California condors in existence, fewer than half living in the wild, these birds are invaluable to the species’ future.
By Sunday morning, the fire was shifting directions and gaining ground. The call was made to evacuate the condors. By that time however, Highway 1 had been closed and all road access to the condor sanctuary was shut down. The only way they could be rescued was by helicopter. Fire resources were spread thin tending to the near 1100 blazes in California.
Having called upon the Coast Guard once before for a sea lion rescue off Point Dume, I decided to give them a jingle. Just as I’d thought, they were eager to help if only they could find an available air crew and get approval for the mission. I went ahead and doubled my chances by also calling the state Office of Emergency Services as the Coast Guard suggested. I found that they too were willing to look into allocating resources to help the birds. By early afternoon we received the word. It was a go. A Coast Guard unit had been assigned to the mission, and the Governor’s Office called with instructions to rescue the birds from danger.
The race was on—a race against the fire, the weather, and daylight. By 3:45 p.m., the first leg of the operation was underway. A team of three biologists from Ventana Wildlife Society boarded the Coast Guard helicopter at Monterey Jet Center airfield. They were going to be dropped off as close to the facility as possible, hike in, confine the birds into dog crates, and use their one ATV to transport the animals back to the landing pad. They had four and a half hours of daylight left.
Joe Burnett, senior wildlife biologist for the condor program led the rescue team. Joining him was Mike Tyner and Henry Bonifas. In over 90-degree temperature, the young men made their way down the dirt road toward the condors—a 2.5-mile trek. Ash floated down like snow. The air was still and an eerie silence gripped the canyon. The team worked quickly to capture and cage each of the nearly 20-pound birds.
It was not easy work as the birds, with their 9-foot wing span, could easily fly from one end of their flight pen to the next. Once in their German shepherd-size dog crates, the birds were carted up the winding, craggy dirt road to the rendezvous point, two at a time. Over three hours passed before the first group of five condors was airlifted out of danger. They were quickly offloaded to an awaiting vehicle that would take them to Pinnacles National Monument to be housed in condor enclosures there. The Wildlife Society and Pinnacles have collaborated on condor recovery since 2003.
At day’s end, the remaining condors and their weary rescuers landed safely out of harm’s way, thanks to the tremendous effort by the U.S. Coast Guard. The fire swept across the canyon two days after the evacuation. It is still not known what, if anything, remains of the society’s condor flight pens and research cabin.
While the rescued condors are safely housed at Pinnacles, attention has turned to the fate of the wild-flying condors, including three chicks. The condors are fitted with radio transmitters. Joe and his team are tracking the birds daily, hoping to confirm that all forty or so birds are still alive. At this point, one female, Condor 222, is unaccounted for. She is the mother of one of the chicks. Joe spotted her in a snag near the facility as the last of the birds were evacuated. Condors, like most diurnal birds, do not fly at night. She may have stayed roosting as the fire advanced. As for the three chicks, we know that two are safe in their nests. The third—its condition is unknown. The fire burned everything around its redwood home. We hope its old growth home protected it from the fire and heat.
As for the facility, with luck, it survived. If not, it will mean starting over to rebuild the enclosures and research facility. Anyone interested in getting involved or helping to support this program, can contact Ventana Wildlife Society’s executive director, Kelly Sorenson, at 831-455-9514.