Safari West builds North Bay network to safeguard animals from future disasters

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


By now, the story is practically legend. The Tubbs fire roared down the hills sheltering Safari West, the 400-acre wildlife preserve northeast of Santa Rosa, and owner Peter Lang sprang into action.

He stomped on flaming embers. He piloted a forklift to haul flammables away. He hopped a fence to save Nyala antelope. At one point, the then-76-year-old entered the cheetah and hyena enclosure to save the predators from incineration.

Lang lost his own Mark West home in the inferno. But the preserve didn’t lose any animals.

Since then, Lang and his colleagues have taken it upon themselves to make sure that wildlife conservation organizations around the Bay Area are better prepared for the next disaster. In particular, Safari West has spearheaded an effort to bolster the communication network needed to coordinate immediate aid and longer-term measures at sites as various as zoos, amusement parks and private preserves.

The effort has resulted in a federation dubbed the Emergency Preparedness Roundtable. Kimberly Robertson heads up the efforts for Safari West. The organization has stepped up out of its sense of responsibility to the community, she said.

“We’re a big place, we’re in the center of the (Mark West) corridor, and we have hundreds of animals,” she said. “Leading this thing just feels like the neighborly thing to do.”

The roundtable effort began about two weeks before the 2017 fires. That first meeting brought together representatives from Safari West, Mountain Home Ranch, the Oakland Zoo, the San Francisco Zoo, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo and others.

In an eerie coincidence, participants talked about the 1964 Hanly fire - which burned a similar path to the Tubbs - and expressed skepticism it could happen again. They shared best practices from existing emergency preparedness plans, relying mostly on phone trees. They agreed they needed to devise new strategies to work more efficiently and effectively.

Then the fires erupted, torching huge swaths of the state. And last year brought an even more destructive outbreak of fire. Everyone from the roundtable returned to the subject with a sense of urgency.

The second meeting took place this spring with a bigger crowd in attendance, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, local fire departments and others. This time the gathering was geared toward action, documenting the number and kind of animals at stake, as well as what they eat and how much water they need, and rounding up the resources each organization could bring in the event of a disaster.

“So much of responding to these situations revolves around knowing each other and knowing who to ask for when you’re inquiring about how to help,” Robertson said.

One of the other results of that spring meeting: strengthened bonds with first responders. Before the fires, places like Safari West would typically see first responders visit once a year. Now, after requests from many of the organizations that suffered losses in the flames, first responders have agreed to visit multiple times each year, with plans that could include training exercises on individual properties in the Mark West corridor, building expertise about the terrain and the animals that live on it.

Because that corridor and other remote areas around the county often are plagued by spotty or nonexistent wireless service, roundtable participants agreed that they needed more dependable ways to stay in touch.

John Fouts is the co-owner of Mountain Home Ranch, a retreat in Mayacamas range east of Safari West that was largely destroyed by the Tubbs fire. Fouts had been a ham radio operator for years, and told the crew his radio was one of the only ways he was able to connect with others amid the 2017 fires.

Robertson subsequently has gotten her ham license, and she and Fouts are among a handful of ham operators in the area who have agreed to stay in touch during emergencies and pass along information about animals that need looking after. They use the ham network as a broadcast tool, sending and seeking information.

Sirens are another alert method that could be useful.

“It’s something we’re still thinking about. Sirens would be loud, but they certainly would do the job and communicate a specific message,” said Suzanne Pasky Fouts, co-owner of Mountain Home Ranch. “No matter what we do to get people’s attention, we’d still need to have plans in place to use from there.”

The roundtable initiative has inspired other local animal conservation organizations to redouble efforts to increase communication and improve preparations.

Pip Marquez de la Plata, executive director of Forgotten Felines of Sonoma County, said he has teamed up with Sonoma County Animal Services, the Humane Society of Sonoma County and other groups to come up with a mechanism for dealing with displaced animals when the next emergency occurs.

“After the fires, good Samaritans just kept scooping up animals and bringing them in, but nobody was prepared to process them or reunify them with their rightful owners,” Marquez de la Plata said.

Now organizations communicate with residents about how and when to trap displaced pets and provide specific days and times when they can drop them off.

Looking forward, Forgotten Felines and other organizations will try to establish an online map that displays data about which pets live where, which pets have been found and which are still missing.

Marquez de la Plata notes that these kinds of efforts can work only if organizations agree to collaborate.

“If one of us doesn’t know what the others are doing, there’s no way to keep the animals safe,” he said. “These fires brought everybody closer together than ever before. Now it’s up to us to make the most of that.”

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County's four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage


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