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The Fire Birds

A last-ditch aviary evacuation—done on a wing and a prayer.

Wowl (at right), a great horned owl, takes up residence in the home of Carol Finnegan-Pisetsky.


This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

As thousands of headlights streamed westbound on College Avenue in Santa Rosa to escape the fire that would eventually destroy more than 100,000 acres in Sonoma County, Yvonne Motherwell and her husband hurtled east, toward the fire, hell-bent on rescuing their charges. By 3 a.m., in the pitch dark and choking on smoke, they’d arrived at the nonprofit where Motherwell has volunteered for three years. “You could hear people banging on the doors of houses and screaming at people to get out,” she recalls.

But they weren’t there to rescue people. They’d come to save some birds. Motherwell is a raptor handler at the Bird Rescue Center, a rehabilitation facility that houses dozens of animals. As the fire began to consume the nearby Fountaingrove neighborhood, Motherwell put out a call to the center’s specialized team of raptor handlers to help evacuate the birds.

Within minutes, nine had shown up and hurriedly set to work packing up 18 raptors—among them great horned owls, red-tailed hawks, an osprey, peregrine falcons, and American kestrels. They also loaded up food, medications, and the birds’ charts, and piled it all into their cars.

The team caravanned the birds and their equipment south to volunteer Carol Finnegan-Pisetsky’s 1,400-square-foot home in Cotati and began transforming it into a functioning, if makeshift, aviary. They piled furniture into the corners and covered the floor with tarps. They erected temporary perches made out of tubular steel and Astroturf and asked neighbors for all the extra dog and cat kennels they could find.

All the while, the birds mostly stayed quiet. “Right away they just seemed to know they’d been rescued,” Finnegan-Pisetsky says. Over the following week, 15 volunteers per day showed up in shifts to care for them and administer medications. When the air quality allowed it, the larger raptors were taken for walks through the neighborhood.

While chaotic, the makeshift shelter seemed to provide a welcome respite. Eight of the volunteers lost their homes in the blaze. Dave Laurice, who has volunteered at the center for six years, arrived for his bird-watching shift on day two. Sitting with a red-tailed hawk perched on his gloved hand, he repeatedly checked his phone for updates on the fire that had consumed St. Rose Catholic School, where he’s taught science for 20 years. He told jokes, trying to mask the sheen of tears brightening his eyes. “There’s been a lot of loss,” he said. “It offered hope. This was the only thing in my world that I could do something about.”

Six days after the evacuation, volunteers returned the birds to the center, which had been spared. Every animal was accounted for. And seemingly in good spirits. “All three great horned owls were hooting up a storm” in their temporary lodgings, Finnegan-Pisetsky says, “which means they’re happy.”


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco 

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