How Safari West's owner saved the preserve’s animals from the Santa Rosa fire
‘I hate to be referred to as a hero of a fire,” said Safari West owner Peter Lang.
But his epic tale - the story of a man who saved a thousand animals from relentless flames with nothing more than a winding chain of garden hoses - has become almost biblical.
The first night fires screamed down the hill from Calistoga to Santa Rosa, Lang woke up to “a wall of flames.” As everyone else fled - including his wife, Nancy, his employees and guests - the 76-year-old Lang stayed behind to save his endangered giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, and countless other exotic animals that roam the 400-acre wildlife preserve.
“The sheriffs were evacuating everybody,” he said. “And I just wandered off; I couldn’t leave.”
While his own house on Porter Creek Road burned to the ground a half-mile away, he worked alone from 10:30 p.m. to around 8:30 a.m. Early on, he drove back and forth over embers with his Jeep and stamped out embers with his boots. When a neighboring house to the west went up in flames, he quickly moved nearby vehicles before they caught on fire. On another part of the property, he hopped on a forklift to move flammable materials away from spreading flames.
The hyenas were in great danger, he said, moving quickly in packs each time a fire encroached and repositioning after he would put it out. Cheetahs were in a night house that he had to save.
As the fire continued creeping down the hill, five Nyala antelope were trapped in the corner of their enclosure.
“The animals didn’t want to jump the fire line so I had to climb the 8-foot fence and try to push the male through the fire to escape. As soon as the male went through, the others followed him. I’m 76, and now I had to climb the fence again to get out. I wouldn’t want to have to do it again.”
Later into the night, as the fire surged again, a stream was all that separated the rhinos from flames. “I couldn’t have stopped that,” he said. “Nature worked with me.”
His most effective tool was quick decision-making as he tried to prioritize each impending danger. “You had to know what you couldn’t save,” he says.
His second most effective tool: An ever-growing tangle of garden hoses.
“When I ran out of hose, I grabbed another one and hooked it on and kept going. Then you grab a hose and see that someone ran over it and you’re mad as hell because the bent brass fitting won’t work. Then you grab another hose that someone had cut off, so half the time you’re working angry.”
With the hose, he soaked himself over and over again to cool off, but the flames were so hot his hoodie sweatshirt and jeans kept drying out. Every 15 minutes he would re-soak himself all over again.
“One of the questions a lot of people ask is, ‘How did you see in the dark?’ It was not dark at all, I can tell you that. I had plenty of light to see.”
After the fire, the kindness of the community inspired reciprocal acts of kindness.
“Somebody had made a GoFundMe page for me to rebuild my house,” Lang said. “We heard about it a couple of days later and quickly changed that GoFundMe page to serve our employees who lost their houses.”
Within 10 days, they were able to distribute $3,000 to each of their 12 employees who lost their houses, enough for them to start buying new clothes and food.
For now, he and his wife are staying at their former home on Safari West property. He lost his collection of first-edition books and his entire mineral collection going back to the ’50s, when his father, filmmaker Otto Lang, brought rocks back from Africa where he was filming a movie.
“But maybe I had too much stuff to begin with,” he says, able to laugh somehow in the face of tragedy. “Because I ain’t got no stuff now.”
Safari West had contingency fire plans in place, but he says, “It’s sort of like the old Mike Tyson story - everybody’s got a plan until the first punch is thrown.”
So where does he go from here?
“We started rebuilding Monday morning after the fire,” he says. “We had fences burn down and enclosures burned down and we needed to get those fixed and patched up.”
At this point, he’s reluctant to reopen for safari tours too soon, but he “may open, weather-permitting Thanksgiving week.”
He has already met with an architect who is drawing up plans to build a new house on his property up the hill from Safari West.
“We will rebuild,” he says. “That much I know.”
Looking back on his long night alone, he knows for sure “had I left, it would have been an absolute disaster. One thing lights another, lights another, lights another. I did what I was supposed to do.”