‘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.”