- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 19, 2017

The Safari West nature preserve in Northern California has contingency plans for natural disasters — earthquakes, floods or wildfires — that they’ve drilled with three-hours notice. But when Sonoma County police officers arrived Sunday night to warn the staff about approaching wildfires, they were given only 15 minutes to evacuate.

“About 11:30 or 11:45, the police department — the sheriff, the [California Highway Patrol], police divisions — they started evacuating this whole area,” said Keo Hornbostel, the manager of Safari West.

The nature preserve sits on 400 acres in Sonoma County near the city of Santa Rosa. On Sunday night, Oct. 8, the Tubbs fire was rapidly gaining strength across Napa County toward Sonoma. The fire spread faster than officials could notify residents to evacuate. The flames engulfed whole neighborhoods and at least 15 people died in the Tubbs fire alone, making it the fifth deadliest fire in California’s history.

Since Oct. 8, at least 22 wildfires have burned over 200,000 acres across Northern California. The California Office of Emergency Services have reported that least 42 people died, 22,000 people remain evacuated, 1,700 people are in shelters, and 6,000 structures were destroyed in the flames.

Around 11,000 firefighters have managed to contain about half of the fires, although 13 fires continue to burn.

Safari West, a 400-acre animal preserve, has around 1,000 animals spanning 98 species native to Africa. They include giraffes, cheetahs, rhinos, but also smaller animals — different varieties of birds, antelopes, zebras, and more.

The preserve is also a luxury getaway, with “plush tents” for guests to stay overnight. On the night of the fire, 30 of their guests and the staff were given only given 15 minutes to get out of the fire’s impending path.

“It was literally, run for your life,” Mr. Hornbostel said in a phone interview with The Washington Times.

To take care of the animals, the preserve’s founder and owner, Peter Lang, stayed behind, using a garden hose to put out small ember fires along the preserves perimeter. Nearby, Mr. Lang’s home was destroyed by the flames.

Throughout the worst of the fire, the preserve was spared thanks to its unique location low in a valley. Mr. Hornbostel described it as the fire “jumping over them.”

“Imagine there’s a hill on one side, probably four or 500 feet tall, we’re nestled right at the base. The fire came from the other side of the hill — a crown fire is what the fire department called it — basically, the flames were in the tree tops and the wind was blowing embers to another tree top.”

What made the fires deadly and fast-moving for most of the area — namely strong, hurricane force winds — saved the preserve. The wind blew so fast and hard that the embers didn’t land on the preserve.

“They landed past us,” he said.

At 6 a.m. the following day, a few staff showed up at the preserve to assist Mr. Lang to protect the animals. For the next 24 to 48 hours, the staff patrolled the perimeter putting out spot fires. With the fires gaining intensity in the city, Mr. Hornbostel said that few if any fire department resources were able to help the preserve.

“Most of the fire department resources were being used to save homes at the bottom of the hill. We had to use our own crews to put these fires out,” he said.

The following day more people came, between 50 and 60 people, either staff or former staff and volunteers. The people went around the preserve counting each animal individually, making sure all were accounted for and in good conditions.

As the fires slowly came under control, the staff brought in veterinarians to check on the animals — of which Mr. Hornbostel said they are doing well, despite the staff continuing to wear masks to protect against smoke pollution, with intermittent days of clear weather.

As firefighters continue to make headway on containing flames, the long-term consequences are just starting to be realized. Smoke pollution is contributing to severe asthma attacks and affecting people with respiratory issues. People returning to the their homes, sifting through mountains of ash, are further exposed to pollutants and dangerous chemicals.

The California Psychological Association has raised the red flag about the threat to mental health for survivors of the fires, The Associated Press reported.

“There is tremendous acute and long term impact and we are needed right now to help,” Dr. Chip Shreiber, the association’s disaster resource coordinator, said in the email sent Monday to a distribution list of 13,000 licensed psychologists across California, the AP reported. “Please get the word out.”

The staff at Safari West were not immune to loss themselves. At least 11 of the preserve’s 150 employees have lost their entire homes. Mr. Hornbostel said that while his home is safe, his son’s high school was completely gutted by the flames.

“A couple of them come to work every day despite the devastation they had to go through. Talking to them, our staff is so dedicated to the animals — they’d rather be here than sitting at home dealing with the crisis at home,” he said. “The majority of our employees are doing good, they’re safe, didn’t lose anybody’s life at the end of the day — that’s the most important thing.”

On the preserve, smoke damage to the guest tents and damage to the property has forced them to halt day tours through mid-November and cancel all overnight reservations through March 2018.

They’re also prevented from allowing visitors to the preserve because of road closures by fire and police officials as cleanup from the fires continue. However, Mr. Hornbostel hopes that they can reopen soon and bring some levity to people who have lost so much.

“I think it would be a nice thing to show people, which is like giraffes walking on hills, which is what I’m looking at right now,” he said.

“It’s an amazing sight to see and a lot of our supporters want to come and see it. We’ll be open as soon as we can.”

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