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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Hom and Suzie Bahmanyar were so enchanted by their first visit to Safari West two years ago, that when the Tubbs fire ravaged Sonoma County in October, they feared the worst for the 400-acre wildlife preserve.

But the San Jose residents read about how owner Peter Lang had stayed behind and, using little more than grit and a garden hose, battled through the night to save the preserve’s cheetahs, hyenas, lemurs and giraffes from the firestorm.

Inspire by his devotion, the pair jumped at the chance to attend the grand reopening of the Porter Creek Road attraction this weekend.

“After what the owner went through to save this park after his own house burned down, how could we not?” Suzie Bahmanyar said.

The Bahmanyars spent Saturday afternoon touring the exhibits and interacting with some of the nearly 1,000 exotic African species on the property, as well as a handful of other animals brought in for the event.

Suzie Bahmanyar found Willow the two-toed sloth particularly charming. As some Guineafowl strutted by and the flamingo flock trumpeted in the distance, Bahmanyar leaned in close enough to let the lethargic creature lick her face. “It was very gentle,” she said of Willow’s “kiss.”

About 400 people were expected to attend the two-day grand reopening weekend, benefiting the Safari West Wildlife Foundation. The nonprofit funds education, conservation and research programs connected to the preserve, which Lang and his wife Nancy started in 1993.

Nancy Lang said she was initially hesitant to reopen so soon after the fires because she didn’t want guests to have to drive through the heart-wrenching scenes of devastation left behind by the fire.

But they received so many inquiries and messages from former guests around the world who wanted to know when they could visit or support the preserve in some way, they realized they had to reopen as soon as possible, she said.

After repairs were made and power was restored, they held a soft reopening on Nov. 20.

They initially offered 50 tickets for this weekend’s foundation benefit at $65 per adult, but sold out in hours, said Keo Hornbostel, executive director of the park. They upped admittance to 200 and those tickets sold out right away, too. The same happened for the 200 Sunday slots.

That outpouring of support has been mirrored by direct donations to the foundation, with have topped $100,000. The money will be used to expand the foundation’s work, such as through a summer camp for kids or conservation programs, said the foundation’s president, Stephanie Larson.

She believes there are land management lessons that can be learned from the preserve’s survival, which she noted came not only through Lang’s efforts but because large areas of the property are grazed in a way that creates natural fire breaks, she said.

She pointed to the verdant hillside as evidence that the preserve’s management had starved the fire of the fuels that in other areas turned it into an inferno that decimated the landscape.

“Now it’s coming back exactly as it’s supposed to,” she said.

Hornbostel also cited the GoFundMe page started by a San Jose software engineer named Mate Varga as another example of people’s desire to help. The funds are dedicated to the 11 Safari West employees who lost their homes in the fires. Each employee has received $4,000 to date, and donations continue to come in, Hornbostel said.

That money has been a blessing for Marie Martinez, known as “Cheetah Marie” for her dedication to the preserve’s big cats. Martinez lost virtually everything when her home in Coffey Park was destroyed.

“There’s just no way to say thank you for something like that,” she said of the donations.

Martinez said she’s grateful that her family is safe and she has a job she loves at a place that, in light of its survival in the center of the worst firestorm in the state history, seems miraculous.

“There’s a little angel sitting over this place,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat

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