Wildlife Park Owner Saved Animals From Fire as His Own Home Burned

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'Didn’t lose an animal, didn’t lose a bird, didn’t lose a structure,' says Safari West owner Peter Lang. 'Did lose my home.' (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

Wildlife Park Owner Saved Animals From Fire as His Own Home Burned

Wildlife Park Owner Saved Animals From Fire as His Own Home Burned

Wildfires like the ones raging north of San Francisco can be unpredictable forces of nature, devouring everything in their path -- and then, mercifully, meandering.

Peter Lang, the 77-year-old owner of Safari West wildlife park near Santa Rosa, knows both sides of that coin.

The road to the 400-acre "Sonoma Serengeti" -- a wildlife preserve that's home to over 1,000 animals -- is now like a twisting wasteland. Electrical poles hang by their lines, the bottoms chewed by fire. Cars in yards have been reduced to just their tops, like ashy eggshells. Gates to estates look like they've been bombed out.

But pulling up to Safari West, it feels like ... life.

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The sprinklers are watering green grass, flamingos splash in their oasis, giraffes teeter in the hazy background. Lang, who resembles a rustic, rosy-cheeked Sean Connery, points out the aviary.

"I mean one lit branch laying on that, I mean, it would have pssh, up in flames," he says.

Lang and his staff have been working tirelessly.

"Didn't lose an animal, didn't lose a bird, didn't lose a structure," says Lang. "Did lose my home."

On the night of the evacuations, he was at his home a mile down the road with his wife. They fled, and came here.

"They wanted everybody to evacuate here, and I couldn't leave," explains Lang.

Flamingos stand in the foreground as giraffes roam in the smoky distance at Safari West. The park houses a huge range of animals, from a wide variety of bird species to cheetah, antelope, buffalo and primates.
Flamingos stand in the foreground as giraffes roam in the smoky distance at Safari West. The park houses a huge range of animals, from a wide variety of bird species to cheetahs, antelopes, buffaloes and primates. (Sara Hossaini/KQED)

All night, he put out small fires that could have gotten big. At one point, he had to push a huddle of cornered, reluctant nyala antelopes through a ring of fire.

"I do believe in souls, and all these critters do have souls. And it was my responsibility to save those souls," says Lang.

In the morning, even without power, some employees managed to find their way back up to help.

Fred Dickerson has been fixing cheetah fences and caring for the 1,000 animals, which also include rhinos. He says the animals are important, and he likes working here.

"They said every animal has been accounted for, even the birds they let out to fly. They got everyone back," says Dickerson.

And remarkably, Lang says, they're fine. As for Lang?

"You know, I'm a pretty emotionally solid person," he says. "But it can hit you hard."

Does he replay that decision to fight it out here, rather than at his own home?

Not for a second.

"Had to do it here, ya truly," says Lang, as he fights back tears. "Had to do it here."

Lang says he and his wife are luckier than most. Now, they call their park "home."