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Big Sur Fire Update

We will update as often as possible as the news comes in…


Rebuild Update- October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

Release Pen rebuild underway
Santa Barbara Zoo volunteers
Santa Barbara Zoo volunteers
San Francisco Zoo volunteers w/watertank
Release pen rebuild
Release pen rebuild
Thanks to volunteers
Release pen construction

We're making great progress on our release pen rebuild. We plan to have it completed by Thanksgiving and begin using it to trap our wild flock in early December 2008. A big thanks to Santa Barbara and San Francisco Zoo for sending us volunteers to assist with pen construction. The new release pen will have many improvements, including a much larger double-door catch pen and a sturdier flight pen.  We found a new spring source near the release pen after the fires and we just finished installing the pvc pipe to supply a constant flow of fresh water to both our condor pools (wild flock pool and release pen pool). The wild flock has responded very well to the continual flow of fresh water...major pool parties are being observed daily. We are still anticipating mudslides and road washouts on burnt areas in Big Sur with the approaching winter rains. We can only hope that Mother Nature will go easy on us this winter. Until next time…

Joe Burnett
Sr. Wildlife Biologist










Fire Update- September 9, 2008

Dear VWS Supporters,

Mike Mace of San Diego Zoo presents $10K check
Mike Mace of San Diego Zoo presents $10K check
The nest tree Redwood grove
The nest tree in the Redwood grove
Ivan stands at the base of the tree
Ivan stands at the base of the burned redwoods
Condor 231 perched at the nest entrance
Condor 231 perched at the nest entrance
Joseph makes his way past the redwood window
Joseph makes his way past the window in the redwood
Joe Burnett approaches the nest
Joe Burnett approaches the nest
Joseph's first look at the chick in the redwood
Joseph's first look at the chick
Redwood miracle
Redwood miracle chick

We have received an incredible amount of support over the last few weeks and we thank all of you who have contributed thus far. We just received a donation from one of our condor program partners. San Diego Zoo presented us a donation of $10,000 to replace condor equipment lost in the fires and they also said there was a good possibility that additional donations would follow from their own members, which is incredibly exciting.

We have completed cleaning up the fire debris and have successfully replaced our water system and tanks. This week we will be breaking ground on the new release pen and hope to have it completed by the end of October. The release pen is especially important for recapturing condors for their annual blood lead testing and holding any condors that require treatment for lead exposure. Sadly, we lost condor #336 on September 7th to what we believe was lead poisoning (official necropsy is still pending). Despite the ban on lead ammunition this year, it appears that the condors are still at great risk if hunters fail to comply with the new law.

Our post-fire assessment has confirmed the loss of two wild condors (#278 and #377) and two of our condor facilities (Release Pen and Rearing Pen). Our assessment of the nest sites was only partially complete until this past week. We knew the two coastal nest sites and their chicks had survived the fires, but the status of our third nest (and our most remote) was still unknown. This is the nest site that was established by male condor 199 and his mate, 231 this year. We really needed to know the outcome this pair’s first attempt, but we knew getting there would be very challenging. I was able to get climbers Joseph Brandt and Ivan Hartert to come up from Southern California to assist me on the mission as well as pilot, Jim Cheetam, to fly us into the nest area. The nest cavity is at the top of a large redwood, which was confirmed by a helicopter fly-over before the fire. The entire area had since been burned over and we knew there was a good possibility the nest didn’t make it.  

On September 3rd the nest team gathered together at Salinas Airport, loaded into the helicopter, and headed out for the nest site. Upon landing on a ridge just east of the nest tree, we immediately took notice to how intensely the fire had burned through the nest area and we knew our chances of finding a living chick were going to be pretty darn slim. When we arrived to the base of the nest tree we noticed the flames had crawled up 100+ feet of the 200-foot tall redwood.  Luckily the nest cavity was located at the very top and it appeared to have received less damage. Joseph and Ivan set the ropes and anchored on to a high branch. Joseph scrambled pulled the rope tight and Ivan belayed him as he worked his way up the tree.  After about an hour of tree-climbing Joseph reached the nest cavity. The moment of truth...when he poked his head in for a closer look we heard the words we had been anxiously waiting for... The chick is alive! We were elated by the incredible news and couldn’t believe our ears!

Joseph then dropped me a line and I climbed up to the nest cavity to assist with the chick. We carefully radio-tagged and vaccinated the chick, which was almost full-grown and we estimate to be about 5 months old.  This chick is actually older than the other two chicks. The fact this chick survived is a miracle, I can't imagine what that chick witnessed from that nest cavity at the peak of the fire and how it survived the heat and smoke truly blows me away.  A huge thanks to Joseph, Ivan, and Jim for making this mission a success, I couldn't have done it without them. 

This is the first "true" wild laid and reared chick for the Big Sur flock (no intervention required), a huge step for the central California recovery effort and a great sign of things to come.  We feel very fortunate not to have lost our 3 wild chicks to the fires and we can only hope they continue flourish after they fledge and leave their nests. Many challenges await these three young birds, but with your continued support we can to our best to keep a close eye on them. Thank you!

Joe Burnett
Sr. Wildlife Biologist





















Ventana Wildlife Society's heroic efforts to rescue big Sur's condors

LA Times, More on the condor evacuations in Big Sur

See video of condor rescue by Coast Guard

KSBW Report on Condors in the fire zone

Condor Sanctuary Slideshow

Summer Youth Camp and Condor Wilderness Camp will proceed - no change on drop off location. Condor Wilderness Camp will occur at Pinnacles National Monument.

August 4, 2008 Fire Update

The Basin Complex Fire has finally burned itself out, but not before leaving a path of destruction behind it and consuming almost 163,000 acres. We regret to report that we lost two free-flying condors, #278 and #377, to the fire. Our last radio signals for these two condors were on June 25th at the condor sanctuary and we presume these two condors perished in the fire that consumed the sanctuary on June 24th and 25th. Condor #278 was a six year old male and #377 was a 3 year old female and both birds will be sorely missed by all of us. While very sad for the loss of these two condors, we still feel very fortunate. If we had not rescued the 8 condors trapped at the condor sanctuary, the number of condor lives lost would have been much higher.

We are witnessing nature rebuild itself after the fire and we're already beginning to see new plant life sprout up in the burned areas of the condor sanctuary. In the spirit of nature's rebound, we have started our own rebuilding process at the condor sancturay. In late July, we began the clean-up effort and started removing what is left of our Release pen and our Consolidated Rearing Pen. We also need to repair our solar power and water system, which are both equally critical to operating our condor field station. VWS Volunteer, Duane Titus, repaired our solar power grid and replaced all of the burnt wiring. He also installed a new solar panel to supply power to our radio repeater and thanks to his help, we have the ability to communicate with the outside world once again. We successfully cleaned up the release pen area of all burnt debris and our next big tasks will include the clean-up of the Consolidated Rearing Pen and repairing our water system. Once the clean-up effort is finished, we will begin to rebuild our condor pens and come much closer to our goal of restoring our capacity to monitor and release condors in Big Sur. We have recieved an incredible amount of support from all of you and all of us here at VWS are deeply moved by your help.

Thank you, Joe Burnett

July 3, 2008 Fire Update

The wildfires in Big Sur are slowly growing, and Highway 1 is closed north of Andrew Molera State Park, the site of our research and education center. VWS staff evacuated the site on July 2nd, grabbing all of our valuable data and equipment. Due to the unpredictable nature of this fire, we are uncertain of when we will be able to return to our facilities.
The evacuation of our rearing facilities occurred on June 22, 2008, and 8 condors were transferred to Pinnacles National Monument. The 7 chicks plus a mentor bird will remain under the care of the Pinnacles staff until their release in the fall. We were very fortunate to be able to evacuate the chicks and their mentor safely during this crisis, and the condor crew remained exceptionally focused in order to evacuate the birds in a timely manner.
During the past week, the VWS crew has continued to radio track the condors along Highway 1, however the more recent closure has reduced our ability to monitor in the Big Sur region. Prior to the closure, we were able to locate the majority of our free-flying condor population, and obtained visuals of two of our three wild chicks, appearing unaffected in their nests. The fire burnt through the area of our third nest, and the fate of this chick is yet to be determined. Due to our limited ability to place carcasses at this time, many of the birds are visiting our sister release site, Pinnacles National Monument, in search of supplemental food and camaraderie. The condor crew will continue to monitor the flock as effectively as possible, using more creative tracking spots in accessible regions. We are also anxious to visit our release site to assess the damages and begin to rebuild our facilities. The fire, however, continues to consume the Ventana Wilderness, and the intensity of this fire is predicted to last throughout July, leaving the crew with little options for monitoring in the Big Sur area. We are optimistic about the flock, but are aware that none of the birds are out of the clear during such an ever-changing dilemma. We will continue to diligently monitor the birds and provide updates on the fires and its impact on the endangered California condor.

Thanks, Joe

Here's a quick overview of the fire evacuation:

Smoke rising over the Big Sur ValleySmoke rising over the Big Sur Valley

On Saturday, June 21 (noon'ish) lightning strikes - sparking 3 fires at Grimes Point and two other backcountry areas in Big Sur.  The Grimes fire, now called the Gallery Fire by USFS (photo #4), grew rapidly and by late afternoon had cut-off road access to the condor site.  All VWS field staff evacuated safely from the condor site in early afternoon, just before the road closure. 

On June 22nd the fire remained 0% contained and continued to move north and south along the coast.  At this stage, we still have 8 condors in our captive holding pen at the release site and we have no road access to get them out.  Our only remaining evacuation option was to use a helicopter. 

Midday on June 22nd the Coast Guard agreed to assist us in evacuating the condors.  The Coast Guard helicopter picked up Mike Tyner, Henry Bonifas and myself at Monterey Airport at 4pm that afternoon and we flew off south to the condor site.  The Helicopter dropped us off at a remote heli-pad at 4:30 pm and we started our 2.5 mile trek down the canyon to our condor site. At 5:15pm we arrived at the condor holding pen and started capturing and crating up the condors.  We placed them on our Quad-ATV two at time for transport back to the helipad (photo #2).

All Terrain Vehicle Condor Rescue
All Terrain Vehicle Condor Rescue

At 6:30pm I dropped off the first two condors at the helipad and they were loaded into the helicopter.  It was decided by the heli crew that we should get 5 condor crates into the helicopter before they made their first trip back to Monterey. 

By 7:45 pm five condor crates were loaded and the Helicopter left for Monterey.  Due to changing weather conditions and the increasing fire smoke the heli crew needed to speed up the last pick-up.  They told me to be back with the three remaining condors and the rest of the crew by 8:45pm, no later!  I quickly returned to basecamp and one particularly stubborn condor chick was eluding our capture in the pen...but after a quick chase by all, we we're finally able to secure her into a crate.  With time running out, I went to start the ATV to make the final run...but it wouldn't start! After some coaxing along and a big push-start, Mike was off and running with the ATV...while Henry and I followed on foot.

The time was now 8:40pm!  Mike made the dash to the helipad in record time and dropped off the last two condor crates and then returned to pick up Henry and I halfway, we're we glad to see him!  Henry jumped on the back and I rode on the front and off we went with Mike on the ATV.  As we approached the heli pad we spotted the Helicopter trying to descend through the thick smoke and darkness and noticed they were having trouble finding the landing pad.  We were beginning to worry if they could land it at all and whether we would be stranded there for the night.  Around 9pm, the helicopter crew braved it out and landed the helicopter safely...a truly amazing feat! We quickly loaded up the last 3 condor crates and jumped in for the ride of our was a really close call!

We landed safely in Monterey and unloaded the remaining condor crates into the NPS vehicle and off they went to the Pinnacles Release pen.  They will be held there until the fire is under control in Big Sur. I would like to send a Big Thank you to the NPS Pinnacles crew for responding so quickly to help us out.

We are sad to report that our wild nests in Big Sur are still in great danger and remain in the direct path of the Gallery Fire's south flank. We can only hope the chicks, their parents, and the rest of our wild flock make it through this alive.  We are also at serious risk to losing our entire field site to this fire...please send good thoughts our way and let's hope for the best. 

The evacuation wouldn't have been made possible without the incredible support of two dedicated VWS volunteers, Rebecca and Duane, who helped secure a helicopter from the Coast Guard and also aided us in supplying key radio communication equipment.  The Coast Guard provided critical helicopter support for the rescue operation and I can't thank the pilots and flight crew enough. Last, but not least, I would like to thank Mike and Henry for going way above and beyond the call of duty, this was a really big effort on their part. I'll keep you posted as this fire continues to unfold...

Sincerely, Joe

The Big Sur fire apparently consumed the upper half of the Condor Sanctuary late yesterday and last night, which would mean it could have burned through our entire condor rearing and release facilities and bunkhouse cabin.  There is no way to confirm the structure loss until the fire completely passes could be a week or so before they would let us in by vehicle on the ridge. We really just don't know the extent of damage at this point, but I expect the worse based on what we have seen so far.

I'm very relieved to report that we successfully evacuated our captive flock of 8 condors from our Big Sur site...but we still aren't out of the clear with our wild flock and nestlings. The 8 captive condors rescued Sunday night are safe and sound at the Pinnacles Release pen and they all appear to have recovered well from their journey, according to the Pinnacles condor crew.

I was able to get down the coast into the fire zone yesterday and take much needed signals for the wild flock and check in on the two coastal nest sites.  The fire is burning well above the two coastal nests, but they still could be threatened if the fire drops down the canyons toward the coast.  I noticed the downward canyon fires we're not burning as intensely and we might have a chance there.  As for now, both chicks have been undisturbed for the most part and both fathers (204 and 194) were close by their chick's side in the nest area when I checked in on them today. 

Between Big Sur and Pinnacles we only have one wild condor unaccounted for, Condor 222, the mother of the north nest chick.  We hope to locate her today and the rest of the flock.  The most dangerous time
for the flock was last night and we can only hope they didn't pick a bad place to roost and get burned over.

Sal Lucido went up in Helicopter yesterday afternoon in hopes of getting in one last visit to his Cabin to help secure it for the fire.  The pilot was unable to land and they had to call it off.  Sal did get some amazing
views of the fire and confirmed that our third condor nest on the south fork of the Big Sur River did get burned over.  He did state that the redwood nest tree and grove were still standing, but everything else
around the redwood grove was burnt to the ground.  We can only hope the chick was able to hang on during the intense heat and smoke in the top of that big redwood, it would be a miracle if that chick survived it.

Donate NowAgain, we won't be able to confirm any of this until we are allowed back into the area...thank you for your patience and let's hope all of the wild flock make it through this one…

Sincerely, Joe


Satellite map of fire hot spots
Satellite map of fire hot spots. June 26, 2008, 9:00 AM

Today the fire is still burning at the Condor Sanctuary. Joe Burnett, Senior Wildlife Biologist, wrote this morning, "I got a great look at one of the chicks today and he appears to be hanging tough with Dad....Mom was no where to be found.  The same scenario for the their coastal nest, Dad was around with the chick and Mom was gone.  Pinnacles National Monument staff signaled 171 yesterday, but we haven't seen 222 since we left basecamp on Sunday when we had a visual of her in a snag next to the Consolidated Rearing Pen...Pinnacles hasn't seen her either.  This might be our first documented bird loss from the fire. Still a bit early to say for sure, but she was a very predictable nesting female and this is the biggest absence we've seen by 222 at the nest in four months! You can see why I'm so concerned..." Sincerely, Kelly Sorenson

See video of condor rescue by Coast Guard

Links to videos featuring California Condors in Big Sur:

Redwood tree nesting Condors are Condors Male 167 and Female 190

Condor in Redwood tree next
California Condor in a Redwood tree nest

Condo in Redwood Nest
California Condor in a Redwood tree nest, part two

Condor in redwood nest
California Condor in a Redwood tree next, part three

Cliff nesting Condors are Condors Male 168 and Female 208

Condor in cliff nest
California Condor nest in cliff

Condor in cliff nest
California Condor nest in cliff, part two

Adopt A Condor