Family calls a rescued bird their hero

22 Feb 2012 | 02:45

Birds and humans recover from ordeal, after furnace puffback sends smoke through sanctuary, By Beth Kalet Wantage — Paula Ashfield credits Lance with saving the lives of her family and his extended family of 130 other birds. “We will never know what woke Lance on Nov. 4 in the middle of the night but we are grateful and praise him, for he is our hero,” Ashfield wrote after an incident at the sanctuary that she maintains. According to Wantage Fire Chief Charlie Rokosny, a furnace “puffback” filled the area with smoke. While soot was contained to area of the furnace, he said, smoke was filling the basement and the first floor of the house. The birds were all downstairs. When firefighters arrived, by about 4:30 a.m., the family had begun venting the area and moving birds and cages out of harm’s way. Since the incident, volunteers from all over have come to Wantage to help clean the birds, all of whom lived through the experience. Some were medicated for upper respiratory infections, Ashfield said. “The birds are doing better,” Ashfield said late last week. “We did not lose one of them.” But it was a terrifying scene, as the white cocatooks were black with soot, Ashfield said, and her granddaughter, an asthmatic, required treatment. Venting the area The firefighters’ job, once they recognized the cause of the problem, was to evacuate the house, turn off the furnace, ventilate the area with their smoke ejectors and check that the air didn’t have high carbon dioxide levels, Roksony said. Two fire tucks, 12 firefighters and EMS personnel were on scene checking everybody out, he said. Rokosny said puffback is caused when fuel is pumped into the furnace and a delayed ignition causes the fuel to burn up. “If it doesn’t ignite all the way it keeps pumping and it ignites all the fuel at one time, causing pressure to build up and blow out black soot.” Clever bird to the rescue “You hear of smart parrots everywhere, but Lance was extraordinary,” said Ashfield. “His intelligence saved our lives and the lives of 130 other birds. We are very grateful to be alive and appreciate our son Lance, the patron bird of our sanctuary.” Ashfield operates Under My Wing Avian Refuge, a no-kill exotic bird sanctuary. “On the morning of the incident, Lance [usually uncaged] woke and went to our granddaughter’s bed around 4 a.m.,” Ashfield said. “She came to wake us to let us know Lance was in her bedroom when we heard the smoke detector beeping. The place was a white cloud of smoke so thick, you could hardly see your hand in front of you.” Ashfield said that despite the family’s “fear, panic and screams for help” the birds seemed to remain calm. The noise and commotion “did not startle any of the birds who were surrounded by smoke.” After the incident, which Ashfield said “caused an explosion shooting particles, sawdust and other toxic materials throughout the house,” her insurance company will cover the household damage but not the rescue, which is considered a business. The local office of ServPro came out to do a cleanup; representatives from that company said on Tuesday, Nov. 16, that they had not yet completed the job. Volunteers to the rescue Ashfield said that with the help of volunteers, the birds have been moved to a cleaner part of the house. Many are in the family living room. Recalling how terrifying it was at the time, she said she worked feverishly to save them “while dismissing tears that reached the opening of my mouth and the taste of smoke that caused me to choke, coughing continually.” But, “the birds, they all seemed to cooperate. I had no biters, none resisted my helping them out of this mess, they all seemed to know I was frantic and in fear for their life.” She reports that some of the cockatiels had breathing difficulties from the smoke inhalation but all the rest seem to be fine. She and volunteers have been bathing them to clean soot from their feathers. “As per our vet,” she said, they bathed “each bird with Dawn dishwashing liquid to wash off the smoke particles and sawdust left on them.” While insurance will cover the cost for restoration, which Ashfield said has been estimated to be near $25,000, she figures she’ll need to spend another $2,500 or more to replace cages that cannot be cleaned, to pay vet bills and replace other items. The list of necessities includes: towels, washcloths, toys and perches of all sizes, large cages, cleaning products safe for birds, food and money. To donate, call 973-702-7770 or mail items and financial donations to: Under My Wing Avian Refuge, 1243 Rt. 23 North, Wantage, NJ 07461 or e-mail: