Peter Lang had a heart-wrenching choice — save his house in the fire-ravaged hills above Santa Rosa or protect the more than 1,000 animals trapped at his wildlife preserve, Safari West.
The 77-year-old owner of the 400-acre facility on Porter Creek Road didn’t give it much thought.
As the flames approached, Lang ushered his wife, employees and 30 overnight guests off the hill, grabbed a garden hose and began dousing hot spots threatening his collection of primarily African species, including cheetahs, giraffes and rhinoceroses.
When dawn broke, they were all alive but Lang’s home was destroyed.
“I did not lose a single animal,” he said Tuesday as he walked the grounds, dense smoke still shrouding pens and other outbuildings. “It is amazing.”
Safari West emerged as an anomaly in the Mark West Springs area directly in the path of the inferno that roared into Santa Rosa from Calistoga early Monday. It has burned 27,000 acres and is blamed for at least 11 deaths.
Homes along the oak-lined, twisting roadway suffered extensive damage with only chimneys and burned cars left behind. Charred trees blocked parts of the road with melted power lines dangling everywhere.
Residents were mostly barred from returning because of continued fire danger. Firefighters, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. crews and police were among the only people there.
Lang, who along with his wife, Nancy, opened Safari West in 1993, was back at work Tuesday with his staff, trying to restore calm.
Sunday night he had been alone with his animals. Guests in his luxury tents had been ordered out, leaving their luggage on the lawn.
As hot embers landed in the animals’ enclosures, Lang, ran between them, putting out small fires and coaxing hyenas and other animals from one enclosure to another in a hopscotch manner to protect them. Small patches of ground burned but no animals were hurt, he said.
“Peter stayed,” employee Jane Haught said Tuesday. “It’s his baby.”
It wasn’t without cost. Lang’s family compound on 200 acres a half-mile east of the wildlife preserve was destroyed. It was not clear if he could have saved it.
“I have a thousand souls I’m responsible for,” he said as he walked the grounds, dense smoke still shrouding pens and other outbuildings. “It wasn’t even a decision. This is what I had to do.”
You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 707-568-5312 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ppayne.