Yesterday at 11am I got a call from my brother in law, Pasquale Mastantuono inviting me to document some of the story at Safari West. Located in the hills of Santa Rosa the 400-acre private wildlife preserve was in the direct path of the destructive and deadly Tubbs Fire that swept through the area on Sunday night. Like everyone else, I knew that the preserve had been spared but barely. Looking at the map it seemed almost impossible that it escaped the flames and in person, even more so.
As I approached Santa Rosa on Hwy 101 I was looking out of my window searching for scorched hills but didn’t see it until I was actually on top of it. It went from normal to catastrophic in a matter of seconds. The freeway exits were closed by law enforcement as the area was still too volatile for public access but I was following behind Pasquale, an off-duty Los Angeles County Sheriffs Deputy who had driven up as soon as he heard about the fires. We were waved through, following behind a dozen fire trucks and PG&E vehicles. I can barely find the words to describe what we saw as we made our way to Safari West. When you hear on the news that entire neighborhoods were destroyed that is no under statement. It was destruction for as far as the eye could see – homes flattened as if they were hit by a bomb instead of a fire, skeletons of cars, downed power lines, smoldering tree stumps, the hills still smoking.
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As we snaked up the canyon the scene began to change from 100% destruction to destruction mixed in with untouched land and homes. What really struck me was the lack of rhyme or reason to what was spared and what was not. I was also surprised to see tops of green trees which I believe spoke to the sheer speed that the fire moved down the canyon. It burned everything on the ground, including homes and structures, but moved on before it had time to reach the tree tops. It was a strange juxtaposition.
Now, I want to tell you about what I saw at Safari West. Whether from miracle or the sheer will of it’s owner, Peter Lang, Safari West was mostly untouched. 400 acres. Dozens of tents. 1000 animals. All safe. If not for the smoke and ash you could almost pretend that there was never a fire at all. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to visit Safari West you know that part of the magic are the sounds of the birds and monkeys, the caws are constant and immediately transports you out of Northern California and into the wild. Yesterday was no different. The animals were happy, content, and seemingly unaware of just how close they came to death. From the baby giraffes clumsily walking along to the lazy rhino who lifted his head to take a peek at me before going about his day, the animals were such a ray of light after the despair that I felt driving through the other parts of Santa Rosa.
I am not going to tell the story of how Peter stayed or what he must have experienced because frankly, I’m not sure. All I know is that he stayed and fought as his wife evacuated with their dogs and nothing more. She didn’t hear from him all night and presumed the worst. How could you not? How you could possibly begin to imagine that Safari West was okay amidst such total destruction? Just 1/2 mile up the road stood Peter and Nancy’s dream home, lovingly referred to as “4000”. It’s gone, every bit of it except for an SUV and their cattle which were able to find safety thanks to the sheer size of their land. When they say that not a single animal was lost they mean it. Not just at Safari West but their personal cattle and their dogs as well. Amazing.
At day 4 life was attempting to go back to normal at Safari West. We made a couple of Costco runs, it was debated what would be cooked for dinner, I was offered a jacket by a woman who literally lost everything just 3 days prior. Safari West is good. They have what they need. They do not need donations, but instead encourage the public to turn their resources to the individuals throughout the area who lost their homes.
I have one more story to tell. One of Safari West’s employees, a guy named Sean, did not know if his cottage was one of the victims of this ruthless fire. He assumed it was but had no way to confirm as civilians have not yet been allowed back into the fire zone. On our second Costco run Nancy Lang asked Sean if he wanted to come so we could check on his house. I sensed a bit of apprehension from him as if he was afraid of find out but he jumped in the truck anyway. We were stopped several times by PG&E crews who were working so very hard to clear downed power lines and restore power. We waved and smiled and they waved back. Eventually we approached the entrance to where his cottage sat on the top of a hill. Everything was gone as we turned in, including two horses in a small arena. The feeling in that truck was almost suffocating as we all assumed that we would find Sean’s cottage burned to the ground as well. We got out once the road was too blocked to continue and started up the hill on foot. As we got higher we began to see some greenery and Sean broke out into a full sprint. I did my best to keep up while hauling my two heavy cameras at my side. We crested the hill to see a single patch of land, about half the size of a football field, spared, including Sean’s cottage. He threw some belongings in a bag, his passport, his framed photo of his kids, and his son’s small TV and x-box so that he could restore a bit of normalcy to his displaced family. Our hearts were so full, but again reminded of what was lost as we walked back down and I approached the two horses who never made it out. Someone had placed blankets over them and even a single flower. It was heartbreaking and beautiful.
I appreciate that I was given access to something that many people will never get to see. What will stick with me is the resilience of individuals and the people of Safari West. I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that this fire managed to jump a 6 lane freeway but didn’t jump a 5′ dirt road. I don’t know how the fire licked the edges of the rhino enclosure but never came in. It’s almost unbelievable that the fire crept underneath one of the tents but didn’t leave a single scorch mark on it. With so many lives lost in this disaster it feels inappropriate to call what happened at Safari West a miracle, but I have no other explanation.
Guest post writing and images are from photographer, Bre Thurston
About Bre Thurston: I am an award winning photographer, educator, speaker, and author. I began my professional photography journey in 2010 after working 5 years in publishing. In 2014 I published my first book, For the Love of Weddings: A Photographers Guide to Starting a Wedding Photography Business. That same year I also began my speaking journey as a Platform Speaker at the Click Away Conference. I quickly realized that I had as much of a passion for teaching as I did shooting and have since taught at several successful conferences and events as well as online workshops.