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Wildlife Recovery Efforts Persist After the Thomas Fire Claims 273,400 Acres of Chaparral

From the ashes of the Thomas Fire come stories of displaced human and wildlife. The wildfire has threatened an already sensitive California condor population, torn a mountain lion cub from its mother, and sent birds on an unusual migration. 


Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, the Thomas Fire burned with an intensity that scorched over 273,400 acres of land. The fire, which has burned for over three weeks, swept through areas of Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, and the Los Padres National Forest to become the largest fire in recorded California history. From the ashes of the flames come the heartbreaking stories of the destruction of entire communities. The news is rife with accounts of human displacement and families spending the holidays at the Ventura County Fairground’s evacuation facility, but the stories of the wildlife—whose already limited open space has been torched—also deserve our attention.

It has been suggested that wildfires can have some benefits to nature— Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, allows for more sunlight, and nourishes the soil— but the toll the fire takes can be colossal on the general population of animals who count on existing conditions to survive. Many creatures can be seriously injured or killed by the flames, but perhaps the greatest impact of fire is the loss of habitat and smaller prey that help balance ecosystems and feed larger animals.

Condors, mountain lions, and red-tailed hawks make up just a few of the animals impacted by the Thomas fire. Here are their stories:

California Condors- A Story of Hope

With a 9 1/2-foot-wingspan, the federally endangered California condor is considered the largest scavenging bird in North America. Condors are carnivorous birds who travel widely to feed on the carcasses of deer, rabbits, sea life, and pigs. In the 1980’s, condor populations were down to an astounding 22 birds and on the brink of extinction. Since then, rehabilitation efforts and captive breeding have re-introduced over 230 free-flying birds to the California skies.  As the Thomas Fire made its way through Fillmore, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became concerned for the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest where the endangered birds nest and roost.  Before the fires, a condor chick known as No. 871 was being monitored by biologists as it prepared fledge (fledging, describes the period of time when a young bird develops wing feathers that allow them to leave the nest and fly for the first time). The blaze made its way to the entrance of No. 871’s cave, and the outlook for life seemed bleak.

According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times, scientists spent the days after the fire working hard to locate No. 871 and other condor survivors. Telemetry devices which receive a signal from a tracker attached to each protected condor were used to track movement. For several days after the fire, a weak signal had been transmitted through the trackers, but it was not until Wednesday, December 27th, that crews received the welcomed news of No. 871’s survival. As the condor parents of No. 871 circled their chick, the biologists celebrated their victory. Still, the condors face a hard road ahead as many of the animals they feed upon did not make it through the fire.

Injured Mountain Lion Cub Rescued

Out of Santa Paula comes a rescue story that brings tears to the eyes. Like the California condor, mountain lions in Southern California have been closely monitored for years. As the long-term survival of mountain lions in densely populated areas was increasingly threatened, conservation biologists began a system of tagging and tracking the large cats to study their survival in an urbanized landscape and to help protect them. The majority of older cats living in the Santa Monica and surrounding mountains have been located and tagged, but many young cubs have yet to undergo tagging procedures. Such is the case of newly-discovered mountain lion cub who was injured and likely orphaned during the Thomas Fire. Santa Paula residents reported several sightings of the cub shortly after the blaze, but it wasn’t until the cub was captured off of the bike path that caretakers understood the extent of its injuries.  As a result of the fire, the cub’s paws were badly burned.

The five-month-old cub who weighed in at 32 pounds was tranquilized and lifted into the rescue truck before being turned over to veterinarians working at UC Davis. The vets are working to treat the injuries sustained during the fire and will determine when it is safe to re-release the cub into the wild. Generally speaking, young mountain lions learn to hunt on their own sometime between the ages of six and eight-months-old.

Squirrels and rabbits make up the bulk of a mountain lion’s diet. Since squirrels and rabbits are not as mobile as bigger animals like deer or coyotes,  many either die in the fires or starve to death afterwards in the sparse, charred surroundings. Loss of smaller wildlife not only impacts the individual animals themselves, but also the larger animals on the food web who hunt the smaller prey to sustain their lives.

Fighting For Air Space

In a lot of ways, birds benefit from fires over the longer term. Charred surroundings encourage an overflow of bugs and Bark-and wood-boring beetles will arrive in droves and lay eggs in charred trees—a feast for birds! However, shrinking habitats after a wildfire can encourage competition for land and airspace. Following a wildfire, some birds migrate from their hillside residences to the city. As Havasi Wilderness Foundation’s founder, Alex Havasi, explored the Ventura area after the burn, he captured photos of a red-tailed hawk and a crow in what seemed to be a battle for rights to the sky. 

Countless residents (including myself) have been displaced from their homes along with wildlife and domestic pets who are looking for homes. Find out more about how you can help some of these pets in need by visiting the Ventura County Humane Society and lacountyanimals.org.