BIG SUR, Calif. (KRON) — It was an unusual situation that would only happen in a place like Big Sur. On the night of August 18, fire officials began to receive reports that a wildfire had possibly ignited in the rugged coastal mountains of Limekiln State Park. Fire officials needed more concrete information to determine if they needed to order evacuations.
The Big Sur fire chief called a unique source: A biologist who helps run a wild condor sanctuary in a remote canyon near the fire’s suspected location. The sanctuary has live “Condor Cams” used to monitor wild, critically endangered California condors. Some of the cameras are positioned on top of trees in nests built by the huge birds for hatching new chicks.
Immediately after his phone rang, Ventana Wildlife Society senior biologist Joe Burnett turned the condor cameras south and saw a bright red light glowing behind the mountain ridge. It’s something you never want to see in Big Sur, he said.
Burnett confirmed to the fire chief that a massive wildfire had ignited and it was spreading fast toward the sanctuary. Burnett also knew that there were some homes very close to where the fire was already burning.
“I have friends and acquaintances that live in that part of the coast. We immediately started calling people,” Burnett said.
One resident who was alerted to evacuate credits the condor cameras with saving her life.
The cameras gave firefighters a real-time view of the fire spreading over the mountain and into the canyon.
For the biologists, many who have dedicated their careers to bringing California condors back from the brink of extinction, was a heart-warming and gut-wrenching moment at the same time.
Ventana Wildlife Society executive director Kelly Sorenson watched one condor chick named “Iniko” peering out of its nest at the approaching flames until the livestream from Iniko’s nest camera cut off. The sanctuary was destroyed. It’s unknown whether Iniko survived.
“It was just terrifying,” Sorenson told NPR. “Having the live-streaming webcams was both a blessing and a nightmare because we had to watch the fire as it burned through the canyon.”
More than 900 firefighters are still battling the Dolan Fire. Biologist Stephanie Herrera captured an amazing sight on video when a condor swooped low over fire crews that were driving toward a large smoke plume. Biologists said it looked like the condor was performing a fly-over to thank the firefighters and guide them.
Despite the destruction of the wild condor sanctuary and condor cams, Ventana Wildlife Society’s biologists are still hopeful that the chicks may still be alive.
“We are waiting for fire officials to give us the green light, so we can check on the four chicks in nests within the Dolan Fire burn area. Condor chicks have survived fire in the past and condor parents will do whatever it takes to feed and care for their chicks. In recent days, GPS confirms nesting condor 550 has been going back to her nest, presumably to feed her chick,” VWS wrote.
The missing chicks include Iniko, whose parents are named “Kingpin” and “Redwood Queen.” Iniko hatched on April 25 and was last seen alive in its nest on the Live Condor Cam, just before the transmission went dead. Redwood Queen was spotted over the weekend flying along the Big Sur coast just a few miles north of the nest.
Still, some adult condors have been missing since the fire scorched the sanctuary.
“We still have 10 missing condors out of 100 in central California, or 10 percent, and an additional four chicks’ fate unknown due to the Dolan Fire,” VWS wrote. “All condors missing were carrying radio transmitters so the fact no signals were found during the survey is very disappointing. We are very worried because we know the fire burned through the sanctuary in the dark of night when they would not have been able to evade the fire.”
Firefighters said that the Dolan Fire continues to burn about 1,000 more acres every day, with the majority of its growth into the Ventana Wilderness. Hot Shot crews were flown into the Dolan Fire zone Tuesday to carve containment lines. Containment had risen to 35 percent as of Wednesday afternoon.
Sorenson said losing the sanctuary has been tough emotionally. The Ventana Wildlife Society is attempting to raise enough money to reconstruct the sanctuary, and continue its mission to rebuild California’s condor population. Daily updates on the missing condors and chicks are provided on VWS’s website.