See How They Held Off Flames at a Haven for Hawaii’s Endangered Birds

Jennifer Pribble was asleep when the power line fell in the forest. She heard the generator kick in but didn’t think much of it. High winds sometimes led to electricity failures. It was normal enough. Wildfires were not even on her radar.

Ms. Pribble lives at the Maui Bird Conservation Center, where she helps care for some of the most critically endangered birds in the world. Hawaii’s native birds have been decimated by disease fueled by climate change and by introduced predators like rats. The center keeps some 80 birds in enclosures in an effort to prevent their extinction and, one day, hopefully, return them or their descendants to the wild.

On Monday night, Ms. Pribble was the only staff member at the center, one of two in Hawaii managed by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. As she slept, the downed line appears to have started a fire in the pine forest nearby.

Several hours later, at about 3 a.m., Ms. Pribble awoke again, this time to the thud of a large branch hitting the roof. Still unaware of the fire, she worried it might have damaged the building and went onto the back porch to check.

“The sky was orange and there was smoke in the air, like out in the forest,” Ms. Pribble said. She went outside to see what was happening, and saw flames about 150 feet from the edge of the property. She called 911, and was told the Fire Department knew about the blaze and was assessing.

The center houses about 40 ‘akikiki, a native songbird, and about 40 ‘alalā, also known as the Hawaiian crow. ‘Alalā are extinct in the wild, and only about five ‘akikiki are known to remain there. The only other members of these species live at the center’s sister facility on the Big Island, said Emily Senninger, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. The birds are divided between both places to insure against disasters such as this one. But until now, they thought volcanic eruptions and hurricanes were the biggest dangers.

As Ms. Pribble watched the fire in the distance, she felt reassured that it was in the forest, where a bed of thick pine needles seemed to be making it hard for the flames to spread. For a time, they actually reduced in size. But she grew increasingly worried as fire approached grasses closer to a road. If it crossed, she thought, the grasses on the 46 acre property would provide ample fuel.

“It’s pretty dry,” she said. Rising temperatures appear to be contributing to reduced rain in Hawaii, climatologists say, and more than a third of Maui County is in moderate or severe drought.

A neighbor came over to see what was going on, and while he was there, the fire started climbing the hillside toward them.

“All of a sudden, basically, the fire jumped the road and it was on our property,” she said.

Ms. Pribble ran inside to get two fire extinguishers to douse the flames, but she worried it would happen again. She raced back in for more extinguishers and a garden hose. She texted the forest manager saying she needed assistance.

We just went out and kept it under control the best that we could, just so it didn’t cross back over the road, until the state firefighters could arrive.”

She didn’t think about how the birds she was protecting were among the last of their kind, she said. She just acted, doing all she could to keep the facility safe.

State firefighters arrived about 40 minutes later — as fast as possible, she said, given the distance involved — and have remained there since.

The forest is still smoldering, and occasionally flames will rekindle. But firefighters have it contained, she said. Luckily the smoke mostly blew away from the birds, which were moved to the safest enclosures and appear to have escaped any harm.

I’m just in shock that all this happened,” Ms. Pribble said. “Now that we see the scale of things on the island of Maui, we’re very lucky that it wasn’t any worse.”

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