Today is Monday, December 5, 2016, and it is a rather chilly, rainy morning. And everyone who lives in my beloved mountains is thrilled with this weather. Last Monday the mountains were on fire.
What began as one thoughtless act by one heartless human ended with fifteen thousand acres of pristine mountain land in smoldering ruins and dozens of innocent lives lost, injured, homeless. The words "epic disaster" come to mind.
I didn't sleep at all Monday night. I was glued to social media, sharing out information about animals in need of rescue as quickly as possible. Making new friends. Calling on old friends.
3:00 a.m. A random plea from "Julia" on facebook for "large dog crates" for use in the eagle evacuation at Dollywood. Now, I know the American Eagle Foundation www.eagles.org is in charge of the eagles at Dollywood and the AEF folks are top-notch raptor experts. Then, I only knew a person named Julia was needing large dog crates. And I had one that had been sitting, unused, for years in the garage. Post to Julia. I have one. Great, can you bring it to us 6:30 Tuesday morning? Of course. Posting and cross-posting. "Eagles need crates!" Five more large dog crates found. New friend Lynn, who rescues all types of wild fowl and wild animals, keeps more crates on hand than anyone I've ever known. All shapes and sizes. Five extra large - for fawn rescue. Amazing. Can I come and get them for the eagles? Absolutely.
4:30 a.m. Quick shower and fuel the truck and I'm on the road in the dark, with the smell of smoke everywhere.
5:40 a.m. Lynn has her crates ready. Load. Hug. New friends. Rolling.
6:15 a.m. Hi Julia. Lauren, her sister, and Al, her father - these three and a whole host of others comprise the incredible AEF team. They know birds. Absolute experts. I join their convoy from Julia's home and deliver my crates to the AEF facility. And wonder what else I can do to help.
7:00 a.m. We need more crates. Social media again to the rescue. Karen has five we can borrow, and Heather can bring them immediately. Wonderful new friends, Karen and Heather. But we still need more crates. There's a Bass Pro Shop not fifteen miles from Dollywood. And BPS sells large dog crates for hunting dogs. Shout out to anyone who knows anyone at BPS? I need a manager, and I need their crates.
7:30 a.m. Dear friend Marsha knows someone in the BPS front office, and that person knows the manager, Johnny. I'm en route to the eagle enclosure, but Marsha works a miracle and circles in a buddy with a truck and Johnny at BPS gives AEF every single large dog crate in stock. At 8 a.m. no less. What else do y'all need? Sweet, helpful Marsha. Blankets. Coolers. Water. Done. Done. Done. I love Bass Pro! And I love Marsha! Marsha is amazing.
From about 8 a.m. until 9:30 is quite a blur - some birds, evacuated from the fire's path the night before, get moved to a different holding area to free up the vans for the next group of crated birds. Some crates need assembling. The AEF team is so well-organized, so professional, and so efficient, I did what menial tasks I could and let my mind go to logistics for the team itself.
9:30 a.m. New friend Holly from the Friends of the Smokies arrives. What can I do to help? And in Holly's eyes I read a soul so helpful and so genuine, I just speak as frankly as I possibly can. We will need about 40 sheets so we can cover each crate to keep each bird quiet. The AEF team has shared a couple dozen donuts between 15 people. Holly, they're going to need to eat once the eagles are safe. Sheets. Lunch. Done. Done. She even asks about who's a vegetarian and who needs gluten free. I love Holly! Oh, and eagle poop can be extremely messy. Holly - I need plastic sheeting to cover the floor of the space where the eagles are to be temporarily housed. Heavy-duty plastic sheeting. Done. Holly is amazing.
10:00 a.m. Onsite at Dollywood. Jack from Dollywood brings a team to help. Jack serves as my navigator, as I run a truck back and forth from the eagle site - way in the back of Dollywood - to the staff entry so we can pick up Marsha's BPS deliveries. Takes two runs, BPS was so generous.
Catching and crating a wild eagle is a sight to behold, and only to be undertaken by those who truly know what they are doing. I watch in awe as the AEF crew take a towel or blanket per bird and swaddle each bird from behind, one hand holding their strong-winged charge in a bundle, the other hand carefully clutching the eagle's legs so the human rescuer is not live-gutted by the eagle's mighty talons. Even with the acrid air and sense of urgency, there is humor among us. Eagles are decidedly awkward on the ground - they waddle like an oversized duck! And the smidgen of rain that is starting to fall has made the enclosure a natural mud-slide, so new friends Brad and Kaitlyn and Michele and crew are mud-covered, but happy once the last eagle is safely tucked inside its crate.
11:15 a.m. Eagle vans begin running a route between Dollywood and the Pigeon Forge Convention Center, where the eagles will be housed in an enclosed space until it is safe to return to Dollywood. Back and forth the vans go until every single bird - including a squawking merry green parrot - is safely ensconced at the evac site.
12:15 p.m. Holly arrives with enough Chik-fil-a to feed the entire AEF crew. Al notes there's also Tomato Head pizza in the main hall where the human evacuees are staying. But some of the AEF team are grateful for hot chicken bites and fresh salad. Holly is amazing. Homemade cookies that a young red cross volunteer brought to me with a helpless look on his face. "Someone made fresh cookies - they're still warm - but the Red Cross doesn't allow us to even accept anything that wasn't store-bought . . . FDA rules or something." I take the heaping plate of treats, baked with love that very morning by some unknown local who wanted to do something - ANYTHING - to help the victims of these massive wildfires. There's no arsenic in these cookies. Just a ton of Southern Love. "What cookies?!" I asked with a wink, and he smiled a wide and relieved grin. He could have abided strictly by the "rules" and tossed the entire plate in the garbage can. Instead, local boy sees local gal and the AEF team has warm homemade cookies for dessert. Where did THESE come from??? someone asks as eagle worker wolfs an entire cookie in one bite. Just a little magic, I smile.
12:30 p.m. Holly doesn't stay to eat with us. I ask her about the food - did Chik-fil-a donate or did she pay for all this? She smiles her perfect and genuine smile and begs me not to tell anyone. "I prefer to remain anonymous." And she heads to the adjacent warehouse and begins sorting the food and clothing that is pouring in by the truckloads.
12:45 p.m. The last eagle is covered. I confiscate a rolling table. Set out the food. And the AEF team and I descend on Holly's Chik-fil-a generosity like buzzards.
I sit down.
Michele begins logistics planning. Brad and Kaitlyn will sleep here, with the eagles. Al goes to find two cots. Fascinating to watch humans devouring a meal while they discuss the eagles' fare so nonchalantly. You have quails in your freezer; I have mice in mine. We'll feed quails this evening - large bite-size pieces; mice tomorrow. We need a notepad. I have one! In my truck! And a pen.
It's a Kate Spade notebook, with owls on it. Perfect.
1:30 p.m. AEF doesn't need me any more, and I am weary from 36 hours of no sleep. I head to my truck, but see all those loads of food and clothing arriving, and the warehouse looks understaffed and overwhelmed.
Hi, I'm Esther - how can I help?
New friends Nora and Gracelyn and Heather and I. Crackers in this stack; trail bars in this stack; baby food over here . . .