Saving Birds from Burning
Ventana Wildlife Society’s heroic effort to rescue Big Sur’s condors.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
A single plume of smoke billowed up from Big Sur’s Basin Fire on June 22 like a blown volcano. As the wildfire carpeted more and more of the region’s steep coastal mountains, the biologists of Ventana Wildlife Society’s condor rehabilitation project realized the uncontrolled blaze could prove deadly for eight condors contained in a large aviary directly within the fire’s predicted path. The biologists feared the flames– or the accompanying smoke– could kill the large birds.
Complicating matters significantly, the U.S. Forest Service had closed an access road to the facility. The only way to rescue the condors would be by helicopter. But most private helicopter contractors were already booked. Plus, it would take a larger-than-usual helicopter to remove the condors, which are transported in large dog kennels. “It required a helicopter with a large storage bay like a military helicopter,” says Joe Burnett, VWS senior wildlife biologist.
A VWS volunteer called the U.S. Coast Guard and asked if they would lend a helicopter to the rescue effort– a request that was authorized by the district command center. It got the green light, and Lt. Harry Greene, a Coast Guard administration officer and pilot, called Burnett and told him to meet the helicopter at the Monterey Airport in one hour.
Greene told Burnett he could take just two other biologists to assist with the difficult task of quickly trapping up the condors in the aviary and transporting them to the helicopter. Burnett chose Mike Tyner and Henry Bonifas, a VWS wildlife biologist and intern biologist, respectively. Burnett briefed Tyner and Bonifas on the dangers of the mission: “I had to let Henry and Mike know what they were getting themselves into.”
At the airport, the VWS crew jumped in with Greene, aviation maintenance technician Casey Michaelson and Lt. Brad Donaldson, who was on loan to the Coast Guard from the Royal Australian Navy.
As the helicopter became airborne, Burnett started thinking about all the obstacles the group would have to overcome to save the birds, which weigh about 22 pounds and have a wingspan up to 9 1/2 feet. The officers told Burnett that the helicopter could not fly in the dark, which put a severe time constraint on the mission because it was already late afternoon. In addition, the fire was rushing up the ridgeline toward the condor facility. “We had all these things adding up to a pressure cooker,” Burnett says.
Then things got worse. Burnett saw the blaze from the air and the dangers of the rescue effort intensified. Initially, the fire had looked like red ropes draped down the side of the mountain range. But flying over the threads of fire, Burnett realized the flames were 50 to 100 feet high. “The first view I got of that fire was one of the most intimidating experiences of my life,” he says.
After passing over the curtains of flame, the helicopter reached the condor base camp. But the location presented another problem: The landing area was too small for the aircraft.
The pilots decided to try to land at a dirt emergency-landing pad, about 2 1/2 miles from the condor facility via a rutted dirt road. But the Coast Guard was not accustomed to landing the aircraft on such undeveloped landing pads. “It was a little tense,” Greene says. “We were a little worried about doing damage to the engine and the engine compressor blades.” Luckily they didn’t damage either.
After landing, the helicopter sat on the top of the ridgeline like a giant bird on a perch. Burnett and his crew quickly sprang into gear. While they ran down the road toward the condor facility, the helicopter took off and returned to Monterey Airport to refuel. On the ground, however, the biologists encountered another challenge: A large bay tree had fallen across the dirt road between the emergency landing pad and the condor facility. “That was the last thing we needed,” Burnett says. “All these obstacles were jumping in front of us. All these obstacles we weren’t expecting.”
When the crew finally arrived at the aviary, the birds were perched high in the bay trees in the enclosure, which is unusual behavior for condors. Tyner hopped on the camp ATV with a chainsaw and took off to cut the tree while Burnett and Bonifas started to trap the birds.
After Tyner returned, the biologists attached a kennel to the front and back of the ATV. Burnett drove the first two condors to the landing pad with the ATV and returned to the camp to retrieve the others.
The helicopter returned as the biologists scrambled to get five condors to the landing pad. After Burnett transported the birds to the site and placed them in the helicopter, the pilots delivered bad news: The area where the biologists were working was now considered an extreme fire danger area. The pilots told the scientists that if they didn’t have all the condors on the ridge by the time the helicopter returned, they would have to leave the birds behind.
As the helicopter took off to deliver the five birds to Monterey Airport, the biologists scrambled to get the remaining three condors before night fell or fire overtook the camp. By now Burnett could see the glow of the fire over the ridge, and a blanket of smoke lay on top of the ridgeline. “Your instincts are telling you that you shouldn’t be here,” he says. “There’s a stillness so eerie that it gets in you.”
The crew quickly delivered two more birds, but the ATV was threatening to overheat because of the 2,000-foot climb between the base camp and the landing pad. At one point, the four-wheeler cut out and had to be roll-started by the biologists. As Tyner drove the last bird to the ridgeline and Burnett and Bonifas ran behind, the biologists heard the helicopter coming in from above. “It was one of the better sounds I have ever heard,” Burnett says.
But by now, the pilots could no longer see the ridgeline through the smoke. Greene says they used a GPS system and night vision goggles to locate the landing pad.
After cramming the last three condor kennels and biologists into the aircraft, the helicopter took off. With night falling, everyone in the helicopter took in the magnitude of the fire. “We got to see the wrath that was approaching,” Burnett says.
Greene, who had lived in Hawaii for the four past years, says the flames streaking down the mountains reminded him of lava flows. It was a breathtaking sight– until he started to think about all the Big Sur residents whose houses were threatened.
While in the helicopter above the walls of fire, Burnett’s thoughts quickly changed from the impressive rescue that had just been completed to other matters. “It immediately shifted,” he says, “to what are those poor wild birds going to do?”
At press time, VWS had learned that all of their adult condors in Big Sur were alive, but two condor chicks remained in nest sites within the fire zone. A helicopter flight over the condor base camp and aviary couldn’t determine if VWS had lost the facility to the fire. Burnett describes the surrounding area as charred and looking like the surface of the moon.