Disaster plan works: Wildfire!

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1993:

LOS ANGELES, California––Southern California participants in the American
Humane Association’s mid-October disaster preparedness seminar had barely stepped off the
planes taking them home from Baltimore when their lessons were put to the test. Twenty-five
wildfires in 14 days, 19 of them arsons, roared through canyons in seven contiguous counties.
The disaster hot spot seemed to shift with the dry Santa Ana winds––from Escondido,
overlooking San Diego, to Malibu, northwest of Los Angeles. Each blaze seemed more men-
acing than the last, until the climactic fire swept down Topanga Canyon from Calabasas,
forked, and incinerated two separate coastal neighborhoods. Eighteen thousand acres of

wildlife habitat were seared; three people were
killed, including British film director Duncan
Gibbons, 41, who escaped from his rented
guest house near the origin of the Calabasas
blaze, but was burned over 95% of his body
when he ran back to rescue a stray cat he had
apparently been attempting to socialize and
adopt. Gibbons (see obituaries) was still alive
when firefighters found him in his swimming
pool, but died the next day at Sherman Oaks
Hospital after passing along the name of the cat,
who survived. At deadline, the American SPCA
was reportedly planning to establish an award
for animal rescue heroism in Gibbons’ honor.
There were countless other tragedies.
Often the first warning suburban residents had of
an erupting fire was the sight of singed deer gal-
loping down a paved road for their lives––along
with raccoons, squirrels, skunks, rabbits, and
coyotes. Not all of them made it, and many of
those who did had nothing to go back to.
Wildlife rehabilitation centers were quickly
overburdened, including with animals from
other rehab centers that had to be hastily evacu-
ated. No one got to the financially troubled
Eaton Canyon Nature Center in time. The
Altadena facility, after barely surviving county
budget cuts, was annihilated on October 26,
early in the series of firestorms. About 40
nakes, birds, and tortoises perished.
“We were kind of upset that they didn’t
evacuate it,” said Curt Ransom of the AHA, who
helped coordinate the regional rescue effort. But
with both people and animals in harm’s way every-
where, rescue teams had to make difficult snap
judgements and live––or die––with the conse-
quences. Ventura County director of animal regula-
tion Kathy Jenks led a team who successfully
“moved llamas, moved cattle, horses, and donkeys,
moved pigs, moved two elephants and lions and
tigers,” she recalled for Maria LaGanga of the L o s
Angeles Times. But they couldn’t quite get all the
animals out of the Animal Actors of Hollywood
ranch. A panic-stricken young panther and a lioness
were shot because they couldn’t be handled safely
with the equipment available.
The Condominium, the raptor breeding
center belonging to the San Diego Wild Animal
Park, was also evacuated––including 26 highly
endangered California condors and four Andean con-
dors. Seven hundred firefighters battled the blaze
right at the wild animal park fence, using the park-
ing lot as their command post. The park, a satellite
of the San Diego Zoo, was saved after a day-long
struggle, and it was a toss-up as to who worked
harder, the fire crew or the staff who kept the ani-
mals calm.
Crowded shelters
The City of Los Angeles Department of
Animal Regulation shelter in Agoura probably took
in the most animals, Built to house 125 animals at a
time, it accepted more than 250 at a time; 1,400
total, including as many as 93 horses, who were sta-
bled temporarily at the Ventura County Fairground,
along with 500 horses handled by Ventura County
Animal Control. At the end of November, all but
25 had been reunited with their owners. Los Angeles
County Department of Animal Care and Control
executive assistant Bob Ballenger said from 12 to 20
animal control officers continuously patrolled roads
in the fire areas, looking for homeless animals. “We
send crews out ahead of the fire,” he told John
Grossberg of the Altadena Daily Breeze, “and we
have officers cruise where fires have occurred.”
Said Jenks, “The first question many peo-
ple ask is why would government devote resources to
worrying about animals when there are houses burn-
ing. But people have cars. And people do stupid
things like locking animals in the barn when a fire is
coming.” And then people––like Gibbons, some-
times, but more often children––get killed or seri-
ously injured trying to rescue the animals who have
been abandoned. Fire rescue training now often
includes mention that getting pets out of a burning
house tends to save human lives.
Recognizing the important of pets to human
victims, the Red Cross rescue center in Altadena
allowed people to keep pets with them during the
daytime. Los Angeles County boarded the animals

at night.
At deadline, authorities were still just
beginning to estimate the animal losses. Known
casualties included an estimated 144 pairs of the
endangered California gnatcatcher and more than
400 pairs of the threatened coastal cactus wren. The
gnatcatcher loss amounted to an estimated 20% of
the gnatcatcher population. Parrot breeders Felice
Bahner and Gail Worth, of Winchester, were both
wiped out. Bahner lost 109 birds valued at as much
as $200,000, including a Moluccan parrot who had
learned to talk from Bahner’s late mother, and had
retained the mother’s voice. Worth lost 115 parrots,
valued at about $100,000.
As bad as the situation was, everyone
knew it could have been worse. The City of Los
Angeles Department of Animal Regulation has
maintaned an emergency operations team for several
years now, coordinated by Lieutenant Frederic
Michael, whose handbook Disaster Preparedness is
used throughout the region. The California
Veterinary Medical Association also had a disaster
plan already in place, set up by Kerrie Marshall,
DVM. Ransom also noted the work of a citizens’
group, the Emergency Volunteer Animal Rescue
Team. And the AHA helped––for instance, cover-
ing boarding costs for the Laguna Beach Humane
Society, whose eight-run kennel was quickly over-
loaded. Betty Denny Smith, AHA’s Hollywood
office director, called all shelters in the fire zones to
find out what they needed, while former Los
Angeles animal control officer Corey Whetstone
served as the AHA field assessment representative.
“Most of the shelters had it pretty well
together,” Ransom said appreciatively. “They have
a pretty good planning network in place, and they
knew what they were going to do.”
Note from the editor: I

know first-hand how hard the deci
sion-making can be on the scene of a fire. As a
volunteer firefighter, I was once first to arrive
at a tin-clad pig barn that ignited from sponta
neous combustion when the farmer piled dry
straw bedding too close to the hot metal roof.
The loft was already engulfed in flame when I
kicked through a door to see if I could get the
pigs out––900 sows and their terrified piglets,
6,000 in all. But they were locked into iron
farrowing cages. I wasn’t familiar with the
locking system, I was choking from the straw
smoke, my head felt as if it was exploding
from the pressure of the heat, and with the
power out, I could barely see a thing. I also
knew that any of the bigger pigs I might man
age to free would run right over me. I glanced
back to the door, to see how much time I had.
Instead I saw the near-blind friend who’d been
with me, groping his way inside and begging
me to get out. If he lost his grip or his glasses
in there, I realized, he’d be trapped too. I
pushed him outside, closed the door to keep
smoke from escaping, and listened to what
sounded like 6,000 crying human babies, hop
ing they would suffocate as quickly and pain
lessly as possible rather than burn alive. They
told me later the first fire engine got there in
only five minutes. It seemed like forever. The
pigs were all dead, but I’ve never stopped
hearing the squealing.
––Merritt Clifton
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