Lake Tahoe Man Rescues Owls, Coyotes, and Raccoons From Caldor Fire

by Jennifer Shea

The Caldor Fire, which has torched more than 215,400 acres in the Sierra Nevadas, was advancing. And Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, an animal refuge in South Lake Tahoe, was right in its path.

Greg Erfani helps manage the refuge. Along with his staff, Erfani had developed an evacuation plan. Then, as it became clear that it was necessary, they began to implement it.

Inside the refuge were owls, raccoons, porcupines and coyotes who would not survive unless evacuated, The Guardian reports. So Erfani and his staff started shifting the animals in their care into crates.

Lake Tahoe Animal Refuge Evacuates, But What Next?

Some of the animals took some cajoling. The owl, for example, had to be lured in with a tasty snack.

“The owl’s treat is a piece of salmon. You know the owl is going to go in the cage to get the piece of salmon,” Erfani told The Guardian.

Other animals from the refuge who were in harm’s way include Porky the porcupine, who cheerfully waddles up before cameras to eat corn on the cob, and Em the bald eagle, who has a broken wing and has stayed at the center since 2015.

Luckily, Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care had drawn up their evacuation plans in advance, and they were watching the fire’s progress closely. When the time came, they knew what to do.

“Within an hour and a half we had evacuated all animals, all staff, and all volunteers from our facility,” Erfani said.

This is the first time Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care has had to evacuate due to a wildfire. And they don’t know what they’ll do after the fire is out.

“Our mission is the rescue, rehabilitation and release [of wildlife],” he said. “But you can’t release animals in a burn scar area because there’s no food source.”

Wildlife Too Often Caught in Wildfires’ Path

For now, the refuge’s former inhabitants are safely evacuated to other locations, among them the California Raptor Center at the University of California-Davis, where Em has his own suite.

“He’s got a pretty cool eagle suite [at CRC] right now,” CRC Director Michelle Hawkins said. “We set him up in his own house with lots of perches and enrichment for him.”

But Hawkins cautioned that birds, like wildlife on the ground, are too often caught up in the increasingly destructive wildfires now ravaging the state. People mistakenly think that birds can simply fly away. But their habitat is being destroyed, too, and birds also need to rest.

“If a fire blows through at night – which is a lot of activity we have seen here in California – those birds don’t have a chance,” she said. “We saw that last year with our California condors. We lost 11 last year in the fires.”

Firefighters are typically the first to find injured birds. According to Hawkins, a firefighter was recently reduced to tears when an owl died in his arms. If the wildfires, which scientists say are accelerated by climate change, keep getting worse, more wildlife will perish. And the animals that survive will be left with decimated habitats.

Still, the evacuation of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care shows that humans have the capacity to plan ahead and save themselves, not to mention the wildlife, if they put their minds to it.