Safari West reopens after 2nd brush with massive wildfire in 2 years

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As the Wednesday morning fog receded, leaving a hint of smoke in its place, Richard Horgan steered a converted military jeep carrying mostly children to the Safari West giraffe farm.

“The females can get up to 17 feet tall,” he said to the four youngsters buckled into a row of seats on the roof.

“Whoa,” they replied in unison, fixated on the drooling animal chewing a few feet away.

For the first time in 10 days, a vehicle ventured through the popular wildlife park northeast of Santa Rosa that wasn’t a Cal Fire truck or a helicopter that had just siphoned water from Watusi Lake, the largest pond on the 400-acre property.

Safari West and its neighboring properties became a strategic battleground for first responders during the most threatening stretch of the Kincade fire last week. Home to 950 birds and animals, the dusty terrain that houses zebras and African cattle provided a naturally grazed firebreak that firefighters could fortify, shielding a community still bearing the scars from the vicious Tubbs fire in 2017.

“It’s pretty crazy how fast (burned land) rejuvenates itself,” said Brian Jellison, a Safari West property manager who lives on-site. “You’re never away from fire danger. All that stuff that’s dead from Tubbs is kindling, and all the dead trees that are still around, it’s all dry wood now.”

Since the park’s closure on Oct. 26, 587 tours and 161 overnight lodging reservations were canceled, said spokeswoman Aphrodite Caserta. While exact figures on lost revenue were not immediately available, an October or November tour at Safari West ranges from $45 to $115, depending on the day of the week and age of the ticket holder. Lodging can cost in the range of $200 to $350 per night, according to prices quoted on the park’s website.

On Wednesday, Alana Dimmick of Eatonville, Washington, and her three children, Eli, Riley and Isaac, were one of the first two families allowed back on the property.

Dimmick has been bringing her family to the Windsor area for a decade, she said. Her husband teaches for a week each year at the Santa Rosa Junior College Public Safety Training Center, and with her children starting to take an interest in animals, a safari in Sonoma County was a no-brainer.

“We were watching it every day just kind of checking to make sure Windsor was still here,” Dimmick said. “It was kind of nerve-wracking even from far away. We like Windsor a lot,” and didn’t want anything to happen to it, she said.

The ground on the northern edge of Safari West has returned to a familiar shade of black, the charred remnants of the second wildfire to burn in the Mark West corridor in as many years.

On Oct. 27, the night after wind gusts of more than 103 mph blew over Pine Flat Road in northeastern Sonoma County, an orange plume emerged from the hills next door in Pepperwood Preserve, Jellison said. He quickly alerted Peter and Nancy Lang, founders of Safari West, and staff began spraying down every structure on the property.

Once again, their park was in a wildfire’s crosshairs. Although, this time, they had a chance to prepare.

The erratic winds that directed the Kincade fire were pushing flames in a way that left Cal Fire unaware the blaze was slowly approaching Porter Creek Road, Jellison said. He quickly reached out to a battalion chief he had become friends with in the agency, and Cal Fire sent support — a lifeline that wasn’t available when the 2017 Tubbs fire ripped through more than 12 miles in its first three hours.

Crews monitored the fire’s behavior that night and cut additional firebreaks to provide a backstop. By the next afternoon, the wind swept the flames onto the edge of the property, and Cal Fire spent hours that Monday performing water drops to stall the blaze.

“They were stacked in here seven or eight trucks deep,” Jellison said, his back to the blackened hillside. “This whole thing was a parking lot.”

Safari West staff members worked around the clock during the park closure, making hourly assessments as they monitored the animals, Caserta said. The preserve employs a shelter-in-place policy, protected by overgrazed pastures and oak trees safeguarded by their thick bark.

The newest burn scar eerily ends at the fence that borders the zebra enclosure and rear property line.

“One of the reasons why we’re able to do so well through some of this stuff is we have no fuel,” Horgan said. “Our animals graze down the fuel.”

Park officials keep a watchful eye for any ill effects from the fire or smoke inhalation, said animal registrar Kimberly Robertson. Staff veterinarians have worked closely with researchers at UC Davis, sending tissue samples from animals that have died over the past two years to help uncover the effects of wildfires on animals, she said. So far, nothing has been found.

The concerns remain for the Langs, though. They lost their home in 2017, but Peter Lang made every effort to protect the animals when the blaze descended from Calistoga. He famously stomped out spot fires and even entered the cheetah and hyena enclosure to save some of the park’s fiercest predators.

Some 26 years after they founded the park, having multiple wildfires brush against their back door has created a new set of responsibilities for their 150 employees.

Now on the other side of the most recent flare-up, Nancy Lang felt at ease knowing everyone is up to the task.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen here,” she said. “But everybody really pulled together. Our entire group here supported one another. I feel that this community is doing the same, truly.”

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