Firefighters Rescue Great Horned Owl from Ashes of California Wildfire

The fierce bird, nicknamed "Ram," is recovering just fine. But the species is at future risk as climate change exacerbates western wildfires.

Crew 12 of the Ventura County Fire Department had an unexpected surprise on Sunday, November 3, while patrolling an area adjacent to the then-active Maria Fire just north of Los Angeles: a Great Horned Owl hopping along the ground in the ashes.

It’s unusual to spy the nocturnal birds during daylight, and even odder to see one moving slowly in the dirt instead of airborne or in a tree. The firefighters thought the owl looked unwell and decided it needed help, so firefighter Caleb Amico picked it up and wrapped the bird in his flame-resistant jacket—the same yellow as the bird’s own vibrant eyes.

They snapped a few photos to memorialize the rescue. When the department posted them to Twitter, they never could have expected the reaction: Tens of thousands of people liked, shared, and commented on the images, enchanted by the rescue story. In the photos, the bird’s wide eyes and erect ear tufts give it the appearance of a furious glare, as if enraged at the indignity of being wrapped up like a burrito.

The firefighters then transferred the owl, which they nicknamed “Ram” after the Los Angeles Rams, into the care of Camarillo Wildlife Rehabilitation in Somis, California. A post on the group’s Facebook page shared that upon arrival the owl was “disoriented and suffering from smoke inhalation and a bad case of flat flies." Earlier posts on the page show other fire victims, including a fox with burnt feet and a rabbit with singed fur.

While the impact of wildfires upon birds is not well documented, immediate challenges like smoke inhalation are often only part of the picture, says Andrea Jones, the director of bird conservation for Audubon California. The fires also cause severe, and sometimes irreversible, habitat loss.

Models show that these factors put western birds like the Great Horned Owl at future risk as the climate warms. Survival by Degrees: 389 Bird Species on the Brink, Audubon’s recent science report, reveals that if global warming reaches 3 degrees Celsius—expected by 2050 if we don’t reduce carbon emissions—more than half of the species’ current range will experience fire weather during both winter and summer. At 1.5 degrees, less than half of its habitat will be affected.

Fires are a natural phenomenon in this region of California, and the ecosystems are adapted to burn and regenerate. But rising temperatures are projected to change wildfire patterns; they are likely to scorch more area and burn more frequently, giving habitat less time to regrow before it is burned again. Research already shows that human-caused warming has spurred droughts and dried out forests, creating fuel for fires that catch more readily and spread more quickly. “One of the major changes in behavior is the intensity of the winds,” Jones says. “These massive winds that are jumping highways, jumping fire breaks, that sort of unprecedented fire behavior, is really hard for anything to flee.”

The Maria Fire, which ignited on Halloween, consumed 10,000 acres before it was contained, forcing thousands of people to evacuate. This year, more than 6,100 fires have been recorded by CAL FIRE and its partners—burning nearly 200,000 acres, destroying 732 structures, and killing three people, as of November 3. This follows the two “deadliest and most destructive” wildfire years, 2017 and 2018, according to the agency website. “Climate change is considered a key driver of this trend,” it reads. “Warmer spring and summer temperatures, reduced snowpack, and earlier spring snowmelt create longer and more intense dry seasons that increase moisture stress on vegetation and make forests more susceptible to severe wildfire.”

On Tuesday, the Ventura County Fire Department released a video on Twitter reassuring the public that “Ram” is recovering rapidly. He suffered no broken bones and is expected to be healthy enough for release back into the wild within the next week or two.

“The firefighters were all kind of laughing because they saved a bunch of homes and did really great work," Mike Desforges, public information officer with the Ventura County Fire Department, told The Dodo. "But this is the thing that has taken off.”

In the video, rehabilitator Nicky Thole says the owl is doing great. “We’ve monitored him for 48 hours," she says. "We are going to move him outside now that we think he can eat by himself, and then we want to see how he flies and if he has any labored breathing in doing so.” Patty Perry, the director of Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Inc., told Audubon that the owl would be moving to their facility in the coming days for X-rays to ensure he has no hidden injuries. He will then be moved to an outdoor cage and monitored until his release. 

"The prognosis is excellent due to the efforts of the firefighters,” Thole added. “They got him just in time."