by Sarah Amador
On Sunday night, October 8, 2017, a fire ignited in northwest Napa County near the town of Calistoga. Spurred by 30 mph winds, the Tubbs Fire quickly spun out of control. It raged across the foothills of Sonoma County, destroying vineyards, homes, ranches and at least one retreat center. Traveling three miles per hour, it soon headed directly for Safari West, a 400-acre wildlife preserve—home to cheetahs, rhinoceroses, giraffes, buffalo, antelope, zebras, flamingos and 80 other species. This fire would become the most destructive in all of California history, destroying more than 5,600 structures.
Faced with the incoming inferno, Safari West owner Peter Lang knew he had no choice but to stay and fight for his animals’ lives.
“I’ve got a thousand souls I’m responsible for,” Lang said. He knew that without help, the animals would not be able to escape the flames. And it was because of him that these animals were there in the first place.
At around 10:00 pm, Lang and his wife Nancy were awakened by a call from his ranch manager. A wildfire was headed their way. Safari West and the surrounding area were under mandatory evacuation.
“They woke us up,” Lang said. “The sky was orange.”
According to Lang, the ranch manager didn’t think the Langs really understood how close and dangerous the fire was. He drove up one mile to the their ranch, urging them to leave immediately. Peter and Nancy only had minutes to gather important paperwork. Nancy grabbed their passports and a few other documents. (Later, she would realize that she had only taken Peter’s and their son’s passports.) There wasn’t any time to pack clothes, save collectibles of a lifetime of world traveling, their keepsakes or art, their history. They jumped in the truck and drove a mile down from their home to Safari West, without even a change of clothes.
“My wife left her purse,” Lang said. “And you know how ladies are with their purses.”
When Lang and Nancy arrived, sheriff deputies were ordering the staff to leave. Guests who had been staying the night—“glamping” in the preserve’s luxurious tents—had been evacuated to another hotel in Santa Rosa. Keepers had released the birds that could be released, such as the three southern ground horn bills. The flamingos and crested screamers were given access to a larger enclosure. Lang’s wife Nancy had climbed in one of the vehicles, and was waiting for him.
The fire was bearing down, nearly there. Winds had increased, driving the fire horizontally, moving so fast that the tops of the trees were still green. Everything else in the path of the firestorm turned black. In the neighborhood, heat from the fire was so hot it was twisting and burning the metal of the cars that had been left behind. Winds increased to 40 mph. Top wind speed during the firestorm was recorded at 70 mph, close to hurricane strength.
But Lang couldn’t leave. If left alone, the animals would be trapped in their enclosures, and would burn alive.
All his life, Peter Lang has cared for animals. All his life, he’s protected them. He feels we have a responsibility to wildlife, because we are often the reason they are in the straits in which they find themselves.
As a child, he interacted with wild animals on his father’s TV show sets, with dolphins in Flipper and Judy the Chimp in Daktari. When he was a boy, he helped raise lion cubs during his summer vacations. When he was a young man and owned a cattle ranch in Beverly Hills, he nursed an injured red-tailed hawk back to health.
This is his passion, caring for animals. This is why he opened the 400-acre wildlife preserve Safari West in 1993, seven miles from downtown Santa Rosa in the foothills of Wine Country. Often referred to as the Sonoma Serengeti, Safari West is also a zoo, accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. More than ever, zoos play an important role in conservation, raising awareness and providing children with their first experience of wildlife.
Soon after Safari West was established, Lang and wife Nancy (a raptor specialist and previous curator at the San Francisco Zoo) created the Safari West Wildlife Foundation. The foundation supports the breeding of critically endangered animals, with the goal of introducing them back into the wild. The preserve has known conservation success, such as the breeding of critically endangered dama gazelle and the scimitar-horned oryx. These oryx were successfully introduced back into the wild in Chad. The foundation has raised over a hundred thousand dollars towards conservation in the United States and abroad. Additionally, the foundation funds grants for school field trips.
Safari West also serves as a breeding facility. Nearly 40 giraffes have been born there! Almost every day, there is a birth at Safari West. Just a month and a half before the Tubbs Fire, the 37th giraffe was born. Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, she was named Onya. In Swahilli, this means “the blazing.”
The name was chosen because of the calf’s spirit and energy. In fact, it took the concentrated efforts of Hoofstock Supervisor Erika Middlemen, Keeper Katie, and Small Mammal, Bird and Carnivore Supervisor Jen Bates to assist mother Jamala in the birthing process and create enough weight to pull Onya out. If not for them, little Onya may not have survived. Fortunately, Baby Onya had enough spirit to persevere a difficult birth. (To watch Onya’s spectacular birth, click on the video below)
Instead of climbing in a car and evacuating the property, Lang slipped away and headed back into the preserve. He picked up a garden hose and began to douse embers that had fallen and were igniting the dry grass. His employees and his wife left, thinking he had gone ahead in another car.
The winds continued to rage, causing torched trees to spew more embers. These embers, or firebrands, ignited the dry grass in the animals’ free range enclosures. Lang started dousing small fires immediately. If one branch or one patch of dried grass caught on fire, it could start a fire that he might not be able to put out.
“You don’t have time to sit and worry,” he said. He just kept doing one task after another. That’s when he realized he was very much alone. Well, him, and a thousand animals. The moon was up, and bright. The sky was red. The air was thick with smoke. In the next few hours, he would defy one of the biggest infernos in California history.
He drove around Safari West, driving the truck over spot fires. He spotted flames racing down a slope and toward him, so he got out and stomped out flames with his boots.
“Sometimes adventure gets in your way,” Lang says. “I was lucky. Very lucky.”
It was getting really hot. Lang grabbed a hoodie that one of his employees had left and put it on. He doused the hoodie and his jeans with water. He continued dousing hot spots. He added more and more hoses as extensions to the one garden hose in his hand.
He kept his hoodie on, keeping his head and arms covered. He had to use the hose to douse himself again and again, to avoid being burned. Every 15 minutes, his hoodie would be completely dry. Then he’d have to douse his clothes and hoodie again.
“Thank God for that hoodie,” Lang said. “I never wear hoodies.”
In the barn, Baby Onya was huddling with the other baby giraffes and her mother. All the giraffes had retreated to the barn. In the free range and multi-species enclosures, animals were staying in clusters and moving off to the side when small fires began.
Later, Middlemen commented on the animals’ behavior. “They know what to do. They are incredibly resilient. They know how to handle the emergencies.”
The cheetahs had also retreated to the back of their barn, even as the perimeter of their enclosure burned. Flames were climbing up the side of the cheetah barn. Lang knew he had to put out that fire. He began to drag the chain of hoses, and wondered why it was so hard to move them. It was then he realized he had connected 10 hoses together, and was dragging around 400 pounds.
But he was determined. He was able to put out the cheetah enclosure fire, and continued to work furiously—sometimes the only thing that separated the rhinos, hyenas and other animals from an encroaching fire was a small stream of water from his garden hose.
“I was busy, busy,” Lang said. He didn’t have time to reflect or think; he just had to work hard and work fast.
At one point, the winds died down. But still the fire was creeping close. Dense smoke enveloped the pens and other buildings
Bad Ass Coffee.
In the meantime, Nancy Lang and the evacuated Safari West employees had driven to Bad Ass Coffee in Larkfield, Santa Rosa, right on the border of the evacuation zone. It was 13 miles away. It was considered safe.
The employees regrouped, and that’s when Nancy Lang realized Peter wasn’t there. The two had been married for a long time, for 24 years, living at Safari West with the animals they love. Their romance began when they met in Africa on a safari. Understandably, Nancy was beside herself with worry. According to Safari West’s spokeswoman Aphrodite Caserta, Nancy tried to hire a helicopter, just so she could get back to Peter. Luckily, soon they received a text from Peter, saying he was okay.
But then Peter’s cell phone battery ran out. He wasn’t able to communicate any more. And then, almost without warning, a wall of fire rushed toward the coffee shop, less than a mile away. The air was so thick it was hard to breathe. Firefighters told them they had to evacuate immediately, again.
Caserta recounts how devastating it was for Nancy, having lost contact with Peter and then to be pushed even further away. She was so close to him, just miles from Safari West, but she couldn’t get back to help him.
In just a few hours, the wildfire had traveled 12 miles.
“Peter stayed behind,” Caserta recounted. “He felt he needed to. It was his responsibility. He still feels that way.”
Before sunrise the next morning, the firestorm would obliterate Santa Rosa’s historic Round Barn, along with hundreds of homes in the Coffey Park neighborhood. K-Mart and the private school Redwood Adventist Academy were burned to the ground. The mobile home park “Journey’s End” in Santa Rosa was engulfed in flames and reduced to rubble. The fire advanced so fast that patients at Kaiser Permanente Hospital and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital had to be evacuated. At Kaiser, staff had to wheel patients down the road to escape. Some patients were in wheelchairs; some were still in their beds, still attached to intravenous drips. More than 200 Kaiser employees lost their homes.
And nearly all the homes—north, south, east and west of Safari West—were burned to the ground, only chimneys left standing.
The Nyala Antelope.
Meanwhile, Lang continued to work hard, driving around the preserve in the golf cart, double-checking areas. Then he would go back to arming himself with the hose, and put out any fires that ignited.
He saw his neighbor’s house catch fire, but there wasn’t anything he could do. Several Safari west vehicles burned, but he decided that saving the animals was more important. Tour buses were replaceable; souls were not. The vehicles and trailers melted in the fire, charred black and shriveled as if a huge hand had crushed them. The osteology bone lab burned. The wildfire came to the perimeter of the safari tents, but didn’t burn them.
On one of his rounds, he discovered that a grass fire had started in the Nyala enclosure. A group of spiral-horned antelope were trapped in the corner. However, the only access to get to them quickly would be to scale an eight-foot smooth wooden fence. Lang is tall, but at 76 years old, he is no longer a young man. Even so, he managed to climb that fence.
A ring of fire was nearly surrounding the antelope, as they were pushed up into a corner of their enclosure. However, once inside, he was able to coax the animals to jump over the flames to safety.
According to Middlemen, the animals would not have jumped over fire for just anyone. “You’ve got to have a relationship with them,” she said. “That’s what the antelope did, for Peter Lang. We were lucky it was him, he has such an incredible amount of knowledge; he knew what to do.”
Instead of some enclosures which are multi-species, these antelope were the only animals in the large enclosure. That meant that there was a lot more dry grass that hadn’t been eaten, which meant more fires could ignite. After he coaxed the antelope over the flames, he put the fire out. Then he had to climb that fence again.
Late that night, the fire surged forward. Lang continued using the long string of garden hoses, aiming streams at fires that threatened rhinos, hyenas, zebras and more.
“I had a lot of luck,” Lang repeated. A stream of garden hose shouldn’t have been able to put out the fire. But it did.
When his own home went up in flames, he could see it. A lifetime of collectibles and artwork he had created literally went up in smoke. He had planned to donate them to a museum—now there was nothing. A lifetime of traveling the world—gone. Everything he’d ever owned. And still, he never left his animals.
The night was bright with the light of the fire and the full moon, and Lang continued to work alone. He didn’t know it, but Google My Maps would show that Safari West was nearly encircled by the inferno. Without Lang’s efforts, the entire preserve would have gone up in flames. Most likely, all the animals would have perished.
Day 2—Employees Return to Safari West.
Early Monday morning, day two of the Tubbs Fire, Nancy Lang and Safari West’s executive director Keo Hornbostel met at Sutter Hospital’s parking lot. Hornbostel had arranged a caravan to attempt the trek back to the preserve. Safari West employees who worked with the animals and in maintenance also met him there.
The California Highway Patrol drove the group directly to Safari West. The caravan made its way through what looked like a war-torn country, downed wires, rubble where homes had stood just the night before, blackened and melted cars, blackened forests, yellow skies. By the time his wife and employees returned to the preserve, Lang had worked alone for 10 hours, from 10:30 p.m. to around 8:30 a.m.
Nancy and the staff were ecstatic to discover a healthy Peter Lang—who was happy to see them, and very tired. The staff was overjoyed to find that every single animal was safe—bird, mammal and reptile. Not one animal was lost.
When the employees and Nancy Lang returned to Safari West, Caserta was sure that she would hear the news that her house—situated near Safari West—had burned to the ground. But Nancy Lang told her surprising news. Her home was fine.
“No, it can’t be!” Caserta had exclaimed. But thankfully, it was.
However, not all employees were so fortunate. Almost all were impacted by the fire. Many lost their homes. (A GoFundMe recovery fund was able to raise over $55,000 for the employees who had lost their homes.) It was then that Peter Lang learned that three barns were gone. It was confirmed that his home—and everything in it—was entirely burned to the ground.
Peter Lang joined with his employees to save two homes in the vicinity. A neighbor came up to them, telling them that he had a fire engine, but not enough help. The back of his house was burning.
“Embers had ignited,” Lang recounted. “Our veterinarian and his son drove the fire engine. Our employees helped.”
Also on Monday, keepers were able to tend to all the animals. According to Middlemen, for the most part the animals had stayed put where they were. Surprisingly, most animals did not appear to show many negative effects. Talking with the other keepers on the property, it was confirmed.
However, Middlemen added, “Our hand-raised animals were more needy than usual.”
“You just move forward,” Guide Manager and Safety Officer Leslie Thalman said. “It was a real show of solidarity, around 10 employees who returned to help.”
“There was lots of rebuilding,” Middlemen said.
The employees began the very long process of clearing fallen branches and debris, as well as repairing what had been damaged in the fire. They continued to battle the fire by putting out any spot fires that ignited. The crew worked the whole day, bolstering defenses in case the fire surged again. There still wasn’t any phone service or electricity. They had to operate on generators—for three weeks!
“We had to prioritize where we needed the generators,” Middlemen said. “Some of the animals, like the tortoises, need light or else they won’t get the vitamins they need. Others needed heat.”
The next morning, Hornbostel met employees again at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital’s parking lot, to lead the caravan again back to Safari West. He continued to do this every morning, for two weeks.
Day 6—Employees Fight to Save Safari West.
By Friday, October 13, the Tubbs fire was still only 25 percent contained. All through the week, the employees and the Langs worked, combating winds that continued to carry embers, caring for the animals, and cleaning debris. Because of the smoke, the employees had to wear masks to protect their lungs.
During this time, another homecoming occurred. The birds that had been released flew back. According to Middlemen, the birds know their territory, that there is free food and no predators. They know that they given great care. “They came right back to the enclosure,” Middlemen reported.
That day Lang also reached out to his long-time friend in Southern California, who was headed their way to help and stopping by Costco for supplies. It was then Lang asked him to do something for him and his wife, a request he never thought he’d have to ask a buddy to do. Lang was still dressed in the Levi’s and shirt he wore Sunday night, rushing away from his house. He asked his friend to buy him and Nancy a set of clothes, underwear too. His friend was happy to help—even though he said that was the first time he was asked to buy underwear for a friend’s wife.
Also on Friday, a baby Nile lechwe, an endangered species of aquatic antelope, was born. He was named Tubbs. However, soon it became apparent that the baby wasn’t doing well. Middlemen took the baby home for a while, and then the veterinarian took Tubbs home too. But still the antelope floundered. Four days later, Baby Tubbs died.
Conservation and support.
The preserve has had many successful births since the Tubbs Fire. At least three addax and four roan antelope babies have been born. They are doing well, and their moms are doing well too. For a look at a heart-warming video of Peter Lang talking about the firestorm, see below.
Safari West reopened for safari tours on November 20, 2017. As of March 1, 2018, it reopens for overnight lodging. Safari West was rated by AAA as a must experience location in California, second only to Disney Land! Sunset Magazine has listed it as one of the top 300 destinations in the western United States and proclaims it as “best luxury camping.”
Peter and Nancy Lang continue their messages of conservation, exploration and education. Every year, they refine their breeding programs and educational outreach. It is Safari West’s belief that the more children know about animals, the more they will appreciate and want animals to be around in the future.
On Safari West’s website, Lang was once quoted as saying, “By teaching conservation through education, we create awareness. If you leave here with only one realization – that what we have on earth is perishable and we are what is making it perishable – that’s good enough for me.”
Want to support Safari West? Is there a holiday or someone’s special birthday coming up? Make a reservation to take a tour of the preserve or even spend the night. As of March 1, 2018, the gift store (full of stuffed animals, games, gift cards, jewelry and more) is open seven days a week from approximately 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. For reservations or more information, contact Safari West at 800-616-2695 or visit their website at https://www.safariwest.com/.
And of course, donations to the Safari West Wildlife Foundation are always welcome. For more information, visit https://www.safariwestwildlifefoundation.org/.
When asked about his experience, Lang doesn’t like to be referred to as a hero. However, according to Christopher Reeve’s definition of a hero, he is one.
A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.