When the Thomas Fire swept through the Ojai Valley in December of 2017, Kim Stroud, founder and Director of the Ojai Raptor Center, and the Center’s supervisors — Lizzy Brewer Chouinard and Jaclyn DeSantis — watched nervously as the flames raged closer and closer to the center and the wildlife they care for, teach with and rehabilitate for release back into nature.

Kim Stroud preparing to evacuate the raptors in carriers as Thomas Fire approaches. PHOTO ELIZABETH BREWER CHOUINARD

“Our main goals are rehabilitation and education,” Chouinard said. The Ojai Raptor Center takes in, heals and retrains mainly raptors — birds of prey like owls, hawks, eagles, vultures, kites, ospreys or falcons — in order to release them back into the wild. If the birds are unreleasable, they are kept as education ambassadors for the almost weekly programs the center presents in schools and for the public. Some arrived at the center through people who found adult birds — usually injured or sick — and cared enough to bring them there. Some arrived as orphaned babies needing fostering and training in order to survive in their natural habitats. “We have a lot of imprinted education birds — birds that people tried to raise as babies and then didn’t recognize their own species so they can’t hunt or mate.”

But the center will take in any wildlife, and has housed large mammals like mountain lions or bears or smaller creatures such as snakes, turtles or raccoons. When the fire broke out on Dec. 4, 2017, only birds were living at the center.

Thankfully, December isn’t nesting season, so the center wasn’t overflowing with orphaned baby birds, and the forests weren’t populated with nests full of babies. Raptors are monogamous for life and very territorial. Had the fire happened during nesting season, the impact would have been more disastrous because some birds would have refused to leave their territories.

That early December morning, Stroud, Chouinard and DeSantis were monitoring the fast-moving fire from their homes. At 3 a.m. Chouinard saw it was getting very close to the center and tried to call Stroud. But the fire was also creeping dangerously close to Stroud’s house. Chouinard couldn’t reach her, and by mid-morning all cell phone reception in Ventura had been lost. Chouinard, however, could use her husband’s satellite phone to tell Stroud in Ojai, “I’m going to come in.”

By that time, the fire had already reached Casitas Springs on Highway 33, about 5 miles away from the center. For Chouinard it was a tense, surreal drive because some of the hills around the highway were burning. When she arrived at the center, Stroud and her family had already evacuated from their home to the center.

Barn owls at the center. Photo by the Ojai Raptor Center

“This wasn’t my first fire,” Stroud said, “so I tried to keep everyone focused.” As they waited and watched, they began to organize how to evacuate the birds. Though they’d been working on an evacuation plan for months, there was no way to know what to do in this situation with the dual threat of fire and deadly air quality. Birds are especially sensitive to particulates in the air, and around 11 a.m. Stroud and Chouinard decided to evacuate because the air quality was quickly becoming deadly as smoke filled the valley.

The center had a lot of birds in outdoor enclosures. There were also 15 barn owls and a couple of red tailed hawks that had healed and were waiting to be released. Staff removed the temporary ID bands from the birds and before anyone knew the entire valley would soon be enveloped in smoke, the owls and hawks were released into the clear blue sky to escape the fire.

“That was, of course, before we knew that the whole valley was going to be enveloped in fire,” Chouinard said. “But at that point, that direction was completely clear — blue sky and everything — so they had a way out of the valley if they needed to. Had we known about the intensity of the fire and its effects in the valley, those birds probably would have been released further out of town.”

Staff loaded 20 education ambassador birds into their transport carriers. (The carriers were very familiar to the birds so they weren’t stressed being in them.) Chouinard then took seven patients from the center’s hospital to the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network.

One of the center’s volunteers had room for the ambassador birds on her property in the Pierpont area of Ventura where air quality was better, and they were loaded into the center’s Sprinter van.

“We had them stacked three high in that van. There was a lot of hooting all night long.” Stroud said. Along with them went bird perches, supplemental frozen food and a little mobile hospital of medications and fluids.

Golden eagle at the Ojai Raptor Center. Photo by Ojai Raptor Center.

But then Chouinard, her husband and baby were evacuated from their Ventura home, as were a number of the center’s other volunteers. Now there was only a skeleton crew of five working overtime to handle everything at their Ventura refuge. As they cleaned cages, moved and fed birds, they wondered if the center would make it through or if they would soon have to evacuate the birds even farther away.

And they took in a new patient — a peregrine falcon that was noticeably dehydrated and had some feather damage, which could have happened as it tried to leave its territory.

The path and velocity of the ever-changing fire was still unknown, and staff tried a couple of times over the next weeks to bring the birds back. The first time they returned after four days but were re-evacuated because fire threatened to engulf the area, and a couple of other times they re-evacuated because of extremely bad air quality.

Despite much loss due to the Thomas Fire, the center survived. Staff brought the raptors back but quarantined them in the hospital. It was two weeks before the birds could return home to their normal outdoor enclosures. And one by one, other staff and volunteers slowly returned from evacuation.

Ash covered everything from ground to gutters, and supplemental air purifiers in the hospital kept the birds from having to breathe in particulates for a little while longer. Working from one section of the center to another, the staff used deep cleaning and power washing to remove as much ash as possible.

“We’re just getting back to normal now,” Stroud said.

A new barn owl arrived, covered in soot, dehydrated and disoriented. They weren’t sure if the disorientation was from respiratory distress because of smoke inhalation or because of whatever she’d had to do to get out of the fire zone. She was also presenting with a symptom they often see in head trauma cases — torticollis, a condition where the bird turns its head upside down and then cannot right itself. After a few weeks of medication and supportive care, she made a received fully and was released.

The Ojai Raptor Center is the largest wildlife rehabilitation center in the county — and one of the largest raptor-specific centers in the state — and it is permitted to take in pretty much all wildlife. Since the center has been communicating on social media post-fire, it’s been a revelation to realize that it is also one of the best-kept secrets in town. It seems that few locals know the center exists.

In addition to housing wildlife and conducting educational programs for the public, the Ojai Raptor Center has a hospital, coordinates with the Fish and Wildlife agencies (federal and state) and consults with callers about their questions (“What do I do with the skunk living under my porch?”) or animals they’ve found (“There’s a baby owl on the ground”). 

The extensive Thomas Fire threw the natural, healthy balance of predators and prey into chaos, and has radically affected raptor territories. Now the center is working hard on an initiative to provide people in the valley with owl boxes and T-perches to encourage raptors to come back. The boxes will provide more nesting habitat and the perches help facilitate raptor hunting (to “perch and search”).

Any landowner interested in having an owl box or a T-perch can simply fill out a form on the website’s Thomas Fire page, or call to have the center come out and evaluate whether their land is appropriate.

The Ojai Raptor Center takes in about 1,000 patients in total a year. Now it seeks to give even more complete care and are currently fundraising to buy a new intensive care caging system for the hospital.

Anyone wishing to support this work can simply go to the website at www.ojairaptorcenter.org/ and donate to the Thomas Fire recuperation initiatives or sponsor an education bird.

The center will open its doors on Sunday, April 8, to the public for its annual Spring Open House. Visits will meet the non-releasable “ambassador” raptors, and tour the center that is otherwise closed to the public year-round due to the sensitive nature of wildlife in rehabilitation.

The Ojai Raptor Center Open House will have a $5 entry fee per person with children under 10 admitted for free. This is a dog-free event. Visit www.ojairaptorcenter.org for more information.