California Condor Hatchling Is at Risk as Wildfire Doubles in Size

California Condor Hatchling Is at Risk as Wildfire Doubles in Size

 19 September 2006

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CA, USA — A California condor hatchling that was close to taking its first flight is at risk as flames scorch Sespe Wilderness in Los Padres National Forest.

Wildlife biologists Monday were hopeful that a California condor hatchling last seen nesting in a cave in Los Padres National Forest above Fillmore has survived a wildfire that so far has consumed about 74,000 acres.

The chick hatched in the forest’s Sespe Condor Sanctuary on May 1 and was close to taking its first flight when the two-week-old wildfire roared back to life over the weekend, said Ivett Plascensia, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Biologists last saw the turkey-sized bird, dubbed No. 412, when they evacuated the sanctuary Friday at the urging of fire officials, Plascensia said. The fire has since doubled in size and biologists don’t know when they will be allowed back in, she said.

“We kept our fingers crossed the whole weekend, and we know the fire didn’t reach the nesting area,” Plascensia said. “But we really won’t know what is going on until we can get back up there.”

The fire continued its march across uninhabited forestland Monday. Afternoon winds pushed the flames north toward Lockwood Valley, prompting officials to advise evacuations of hundreds of homes in the rural area.

More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the blaze that started Sept. 4 near Pyramid Lake. Officials said it was started by someone burning trash.

Fire commanders previously said that about 80,000 acres had burned. But on Monday, they revised that to 74,052 acres, with fire lines cut around just 15% of the perimeter.

“We were able to get up and do a more precise mapping because there is less wind and smoke,” Ventura County Fire Capt. Barry Parker said.

The weather should be favorable during the next few days for getting hand crews into the rugged terrain to cut a line, Parker said.

A mild Santa Ana condition that was pushing flames north Monday was expected to dissipate by today, replaced by coastal moisture moving inland, National Weather Service forecasters said.

Still, Parker warned that the size of the fire and the difficulty that firefighters are having getting to it means that it could take several more days, or perhaps longer, to put it out.

“It could be weeks,” he said. “There’s still of lot of line that needs to be tightened up.”

Since it began, the fire has burned largely in the 219,700-acre Sespe Wilderness, a portion of the forest that is set aside as wild land that can only be reached by foot.

Biologists say they are only now beginning to assess the affect on wildlife in the Sespe, one of 10 protected regions in Los Padres National Forest.

Besides California condors, the Sespe is home to mountain lions, deer, coyotes, black bears and a herd of about 30 bighorn sheep, forest biologist Maeton Freel said.

Arroyo toads, red-legged frogs and steelhead trout, all endangered species, also make their homes in the area, he said.

Though some animals may have perished when flames were moving quickly, they typically sense long before humans that danger is approaching, Freel said.

“Most wildlife have acute smell and are sensitive to changes in wind,” he said. “Wildfires are a fairly common occurrence in Southern California, so most species are well-adapted.”

After coming close to extinction, California condors are rebounding in the wild, thanks to an aggressive federal recovery program. About 61 of the large vulture-like birds soar the state’s skies from Monterey to the Sespe sanctuary, Freel said.

Biologists are concerned about hatchling No. 412 because adult condors only recently resumed laying and rearing their young in the wild. Adults are protective but might abandon a chick if smoke and ash from the fire becomes too intense, Freel said.

Biologists had been monitoring the chick constantly until they had to flee, he said. In a few days, the condor recovery team will try to track down the birds using sensors attached to their bodies.

The chick is not yet fitted with a sensor, Plascensia said. But biologists may be able to tell if the young condor is still alive by tracking where its parents are, shesaid.

Animal control officers helped to move and shelter hundreds of domestic animals as smoke and ash poured over affected communities.

About 200 horses from the Ojai Valley were taken to the Ventura County Fairgrounds over the weekend, said Kathy Jenks, the county’s animal control director.

On Monday, their owners were taking them back, but they probably will be replaced by horses from the Lockwood Valley, Jenks said. About 45 dogs and cats also have been sheltered, she said.

“We will keep them for as long as there’s a threat,” Jenks said.

Meanwhile, Riverside County firefighters are nearing full control of two wildfires that ignited over the weekend.

Firefighters expect to have full containment this morning of a 1,658-acre wildfire in Banning that forced roughly 2,500 people to evacuate by bus for more than five hours Sunday.

The so-called Ranch fire, which began under suspicious circumstances Sunday morning, burned two barns, six outbuildings and two vehicles. The fire caused $123,000 in damage, but there were no injuries.

Firefighters are now in full control of the 1,500-acre Orchard fire, which destroyed two homes, two outbuildings and caused $715,000 worth of damage in Cherry Valley near Beaumont.


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