CALISTOGA — The owner of a local wild animal preserve has a disagreement with the American Red Cross. The Red Cross says he’s a hero, but he says he’s not.
Heroes pull people out of burning cars, said Peter Lang, founder and owner of Safari West.
“I don’t consider what I did heroic,” Lang said. “I did what I needed to do.”
What he did, and what he was honored for by the American Red Cross who gave him the 2018 Animal Rescue Hero Award in April, was put out fires on the preserve that is home to nearly 1,000 animals. And he did it alone.
Using garden hoses, forklifts, and anything he could get his hands on, Lang – who was 76 at the time and has since celebrated a birthday — spent the night of Oct. 8 and the following morning moving from one spot to another dousing fires that threatened animals and structures on the 400-acre property.
“I wasn’t everywhere, parts of it burned,” Lang said. “I was protecting the animals, protecting Safari West, doing the best I could with the tools I had available, and I do not confuse expertise with luck. I was very, very lucky.”
There were a record number of submissions for the Animal Rescue Hero Award this year – more than 75 – and Lang was chosen by a committee of business leaders and residents whose criteria was based on emotional appeal and impact, extraordinary compassion and leadership, level of health and safety risks, and diversity, said Kathryn Hecht, spokesperson for the American Red Cross Northern California Coastal Region.
Jeff Baumgartner, executive director of the California Northwest Chapter said, “We conduct our heroes selection as a transparent process driven by community input starting with a public nomination process, and then the selection committee picks the most compelling cases.”
But if you ask Lang, he didn’t do anything special.
While their house and barn burned at their home ranch, when he and his wife, Nancy, arrived at the burning park the evacuation process was already underway.
“We had 100 guests spending the night in our tents. They had to be evacuated. When we pulled in the evacuation process was going on. It was so orderly and amazing and people, my staff, with clipboards checking people out, making sure all the tents were empty,” Lang said.
“As they ushered everybody out including my staff, I just disappeared,” he said.
His wife didn’t know that he hadn’t left with everyone else.
“My wife did call me on the cellphone. I’m down here dealing with this fire and the cheetahs and hyenas at that time and I’m looking up on the hill and seeing the glow of the sky above my house burning. And then also there was a cell tower up on that hill and it burned so we lost connection. So, in conversation she lost connection with me.”
The next 10 or so hours went by quickly, he said, because he was “busy.”
“The initial areas that were my primary concern were the hyenas and cheetahs. Their enclosures were on fire. Their fences were on fire. They needed their fires put out,” he said.
The animals were not panicked, he said, and simply moved from one doused spot to the next.
“It was absolutely remarkable how unafraid they were. The hyenas were getting a hotfoot, the grass was burning and their enclosure (was burning),” he said. “I would put out an area say 20 feet in diameter and they would go onto that area, and then I would put out another area.” And as the fires reignited he would keep putting out the fire and hosing down the enclosure until the grass was gone.
Fortunately, the grazing animals in another part of the preserve had eaten all the grasses there, keeping them safer than the animals in the oak canopy areas where trees were burning.
The Nyala antelope didn’t want to move, so Lang climbed an 8-foot fence to push one to safety. Once the initial antelope moved, the rest followed. And Lang had to climb the fence again.
He spent the night moving things such as vehicles and lumber out of the path of the flames, and even over the next few days he did more of the same. Two neighbors, to this day, do not know that Lang first put out flames then moved a cord of wood from the side of a building at one home and at the other doused flames in burning mulch, saving that home.
“The next night, we were up on one of the mountaintops and the fire actually had turned around and was starting to come back through Wikiup on Monday night, and it was coming toward us and did burn the ranch immediately next door to us. I was sitting in a Jeep just wondering ‘what next?’ and I looked over my shoulder and there were 40 antelope … they were standing about 20 feet from the truck and they were looking and I was looking. There was no panic.”
His own home is gone and is in the process of being rebuilt. They are salvaging some of the felled trees for arbors and trellises in the new construction, something Lang said isn’t financially beneficial, but he likes the idea of “making something work.”
When someone started a GoFundMe page for the Langs, they quickly turned it around and asked that the money be divided between the 12 employees who also lost their homes. Lang, who considers himself “tough,” still chokes up talking about how the fires have affected his employees and the greater community.
“Within a week, (the money) was distributed and (the employees were given) a check that at least allowed them to go out and get new clothes, shoes and stuff,” he said. “It still hits me.”
He refuses to feel sorry for himself or sad about what they lost, and said he’s grateful that they have Safari West to continue to provide for them and their employees. It also keeps his mind occupied, he said.
“We had a moment about 10 days later that got us squared away. The long and the short of it is, we just figured every day bemoaning your fate was a wasted day and you needed to build every day and move forward. And that’s what we’ve done,” Lang said.
The real story, he said, is watching the recovery and resurgence. First seeing the debris removed help lift his heart, now he marvels at the new construction that is popping up along Mark West Springs Road where Safari West is located.
“Seeing the neighborhoods starting to come back to life, that’s just terrific. The resurgence of nature, I think that is really a strong, strong point. A lot of trees were cut down that probably didn’t need to be cut down, we’re seeing that now. Oak trees, they’re tough as nails, give them a chance to grow,” he said. “I know we took down some oak trees that we were afraid were not going to come back and if they fell down they would fall on a structure so it was sort of important to do. Trees that were out of harm’s way, we’re watching them, it’s amazing, they’re coming back.”
Still, as nature recovers and people start to rebuild, the Langs do as much as they can to support and patronize the surrounding businesses that have been hurt by the loss of customers, some because of fewer tourists visiting the overall region, some because their customers were the neighbors whose homes are gone.
Lang said Safari West had a severe drop in business during October, November and December – and it closes seasonally in January and February – but a lot of “favorable” publicity and attention have kept their visitation numbers high.
“And I feel very guilty when I say that because of all the people I know who are so severely impacted,” he said.
He is heartened to learn that some of the neighbors who lost homes and are living out of the area still travel inconvenient distances to shop at the local stores, for example. He said he knows it’s going to be a long recovery, but he believes the community is strong and will persevere.