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Fire kills more than 200 exotic birds in Kilgore

By Sarah Thomas
June 17, 2013 at 10 p.m.

KILGORE - The owner of more than 200 exotic birds that perished in a Sunday fire said he is heartbroken by the loss and isn't sure how he'll move forward.

"It's just like losing your kids. It's devastating," a teary-eyed Tommy Hayes explained as he sat in front of the charred building that housed his exotic bird collection for 33 years.

"I didn't do less for them than for my kids," he said. "That's why I tried to get them out."

The fire erupted about 1 p.m. Sunday in the 300 block of Harris Street.

Kilgore Fire Marshal Brandon Bigos said the wood frame building, along with multiple smaller structures behind it, were fully engulfed when the first firefighters arrived.

A preliminary investigation shows the fire was an "accidental" electrical fire caused by the "misuse of an extension cord," Bigos said.

He added several factors led to the fire's intensity including humidity, air temperature, wind and the building's age.

Twenty-one fire personnel responded to the blaze, including fire crews from Sabine and Overton volunteer fire department.

General Services Director B.J. Owen said the building was engulfed when he arrived moments after the 1:17 p.m. call.

Hayes said he and his family were at their home, next door to the bird sanctuary, when the fire started.

Several people from his home ran to save the animals.

"We were sitting out here working on the barbecue pit and next thing we know it was on fire," he said.

"We got the Guinea pigs out and one Sugar Glider before the heat just took us over," Hayes said.

The family also was able to save four finches and six Guinea pigs. Two bearded dragons were found amid the rubble Monday morning.

He said the fire destroyed the building in less than three minutes.

"It was like you poured gasoline on it," Hayes said.

Hayes is licensed by the Texas Animal Heath Commission, but Owen said the city does not have an ordinance regulating exotic animals.

He said he and an animal control officer have worked with the bird owner through the years. The lot is zoned for commercial activity, he added.

"We've never had any issues with him," Owen said, after noting his office has been called about the exotic enterprise about once monthly. "We have been working with him for the last year, making sure his birds are taken care of and the cages are cleaned out."

Owen said Hayes reported keeping about 500 parakeets in the building and about 100 doves.

Hayes declined to say exactly how many birds died in the fire but said more than 200 were dead and that the dead birds were valued at "lots more than $20,000."

"He did lose about everything in the building," Owen said.

The man, who has loved birds all his life, said he did not have insurance on the birds or the property and isn't sure how he'll get past the loss or how and if he will replace the lost birds.

"I gotta tear it down and clean it up first. Then I have to decide where to go from there," Hayes said.

Hayes' exotic flock included macaws, finches, yellow-headed and Double Yellow-Headed Napes as well as Eclectus and African Gray Parrots. The family also raises Guinea pigs, chickens and a couple of lizards.

Hayes said he travels to Waco every week for bird feed and spends an average $2,800 a month to feed them. And although Hayes said his bird sanctuary is not a business, he added he does have to sell the occasional bird to help offset some of the food costs.

"I raise these birds to protect them because they are becoming extinct. We wanted to protect them," he said. "This is not about money. We do this because we love it."

Jordan Ponder, who lives behind the property on Florey Street, said she also was heartbroken when she realized the fire had killed most of the birds.

"I saw the fire and my heart just dropped," she said.

Ponder said she was inside her home when she heard a loud pop. Minutes later police were banging on her doors and windows to get her out of the home for fear the fire would reach her property.

"The winds were pushing in that direction so we did that as a precaution," Bigos said.

The bird lover said several people have stopped since the fire to ask if they could take the birds - but no one has offered help.

"The birds are going to stay here. They are going to stay," he said of the more than 50 birds that remain on the property. "They can stop calling."

<em>- Glenn Evans contributed to this report.</em>



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