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