I was walking onto my lanai (porch) after work on November 2 at 3:15 p.m., when I received a call from Lisa and Amy, two staff members at the Keauhou Bird Conservation Center (KBCC) in Hawaii. Lisa told me a National Park ranger was reporting a fire on the Keauhou Ranch near where KBCC is located. As I turned around, I saw a large black cloud rising into the air around the upper part of our 150-acre property. I called 911 as I rushed toward our upper alala (Hawaiian crow) aviaries to find that, thankfully, they were not the cause of the smoke.
The cloud was steadily growing in size, but because of the size of the property it was hard to determine the fire’s location. As I headed back toward the main office, a truck came up the road and a firefighter jumped out to confirm that none of the aviaries were burning. As we stood there, the roar of a helicopter interrupted our conversation as it flew over us. The firefighter left me with a phone number and the words “We’ll call you if you need to leave.” With that statement in my mind, I began calling the staff and interns back in to work. It was after the end of a long working day for most of the team, and a day off for others, but within 30 minutes, 9 of us were back at the facility, ready to go.
KBCC has 17 alala aviary buildings scattered around the grounds, as well as two barns for forest birds and the main brooder/office building, together holding more than 110 birds. Following our emergency protocol that lists birds in order of conservation importance, we began our evacuation preparation with the alala; this captive flock is priceless by virtue of the species being extinct in the wild. The alala aviaries are between 30 and 40 feet long, and inside each aviary there is a compartment called a hack box, which allows us to catch and hold the birds in a smaller space, if needed. The hack boxes are usually used for vet exams, quarterly treatments, and introductions between birds. On this Friday afternoon with helicopters doing bucket drops, fire engine sirens wailing in the distance, and multiple people in the aviaries, the alala were understandably nervous.
We set about catching the birds and securing them in individual hack boxes so that they would be easy to place in their carrier boxes, ready for evacuation, if needed. As the staff reported over the radio as each bird was caught, I was receiving phone calls and e-mails of support from all over the island: Kamehameha Schools, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Hawaii Fire Department, staff in San Diego and at our sister facility, the Maui Bird Conservation Center, and even a contact from the Kauai Forest Bird Recovery team, all checking in on us.
At 6:21 p.m., I received a call from the Hawaii Fire Department letting me know that the spots closest to our facility were fully contained and we were out of danger. The fire was still burning on the ranch, and they would be closely monitoring it throughout the night. As the sun set, the staff gathered at the main building for a quick de-brief and a big sigh of relief. The birds were checked on one last time and kept in the hack boxes overnight just in case the fire continued. Reports are that the fire came within 400 yards of our property line! Three days later, fire trucks were still on the ranch watching for hot spots.
When living on an island, there are numerous natural disasters that we have to be prepared for. Everything from fires to hurricanes, with the added “bonus” of volcanic eruptions, is taken into consideration when we work on evacuation plans. Thankfully, no one was injured, and we did not need to move the birds. This fire allowed us to use this experience as a real-time “drill” to put our evacuation protocols into action so that we continue to be prepared for the future.
Rosanna Leighton is a research coordinator at San Diego Zoo Global’s Keauhou Bird Conservation Center.