This Maui Center Houses some of the World’s Rarest Birds. Staff Saved it from the Flames.

Photo for The Washington Post by Eric J. Franke
Formed in 1997, the Maui Bird Recovery Project, shown Dec. 6, 2022, develops and implements techniques that recover Maui’s endangered forest birds and restores their habitats through research, development and application of conservation techniques.

The wildfires raging on Maui came to the doorstep of an endangered bird center, with staff rushing to extinguish flames before they crept to aviaries housing some of the rarest birds in the world.

Early Tuesday morning, Jennifer Pribble, a wildlife care supervisor at the bird sanctuary, and a neighbor saw smoke billowing across the road from the bird center.

When the pair noticed the fire had leaped the road, Pribble ran to grab fire extinguishers, hoping to put out the flames before they spread up the grass and to barns with critically endangered birds. The grass was so dry that it could have taken minutes to reach them. There was no way to evacuate the birds in time.

“In that moment, our instincts kicked in and we knew what we had to do,” Pribble said. “The goal was to keep the fire from spreading toward the aviaries.”

Pribble and the neighbor used a hose to further douse the flames before firefighters arrived, according to security footage the center shared with The Washington Post. Firefighters, Pribble added, have been “out front keeping the fire at bay so we can continue to focus on the birds.”

At least 55 people are dead after devastating wildfires ripped through Maui and tore through the historic town of Lahaina, with officials expecting the death toll to rise. Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) told reporters at a news conference: “Climate change is here, and it’s affecting the islands.”

The Maui Bird Conservation Center is home to critically endangered honeycreepers unique to the tropical islands, with melodic names like the palila, kiwikiu and ‘akikiki. The center is run by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

In the wild, the songbird species are succumbing to an avian form of malaria brought by invasive mosquitoes that are creeping up the islands’ slopes as the climate warms. There are thought to be only five ‘akikiki left in the wild. At the center, the birds are kept behind mosquito nets.

With plans to suppress the mosquito population in the works, the loss of the center and its birds would have been devastating to efforts to restore the populations in the wild.

The center also houses some of the last remaining ‘alalā, or Hawaiian crows, which are now extinct in the wild. The birds almost vanished for good before scientists discovered that they are capable of using sticks as tools. Conservationists hope to reintroduce the crows to the wild, too, in the coming years.

To mitigate against disasters like fires, the zoo alliance keeps members of rare species in different spots – some at the Maui facility and others at a similar sanctuary on Hawaii’s Big Island.

Bryce Masuda, the group’s conservation program manager, said his team doesn’t want to keep “all of our eggs in one basket.”

So many trees and branches were knocked down by the winds that other staffers had to use chain saws to get up the road and join Pribble at the bird center, high in the mountains on Maui. Since putting out the fire near the sanctuary, the priority has been to move the birds to barns away from trees that may fall.

“They’ve just fallen everywhere,” said Emily Senninger, a spokeswoman for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance who is in Maui. The mosquito netting in some of the aviaries has been torn, she added, and needs fixing. A tree fell on one aviary but didn’t cause significant structural damage.

All of the birds are safe, she added.