Fire when ready by Sybil Erden, founder, The Oasis Sanctuary

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2005:

Fire when ready by Sybil Erden, founder, The Oasis Sanctuary

The Oasis Sanctuary, in rural southeastern Arizona, cares
for captive exotic birds, mostly parrots. Our eight resident staff
look after more than 400 birds, plus 50 other farmed and domestic
At 9:50 p.m. on May 25, 2005 I stepped outside and saw a
plume of fire towering over the trees–an orange glow, soundless,
mindless, reaching into the heavens. A foreclosed property
adjacent to our 72 acres was fully ablaze.
I called 911 to get the fire department before doing anything
else, but was told they had already been notified and were on their
way. But being “on their way” is a relative term out here in the
rural Southwest.
The members of the Cascabel volunteer fire department are
individually notified. They have one truck and a water tanker. The
other local fire departments are also volunteer. The closest, in
St. David, is 45 minutes away. The next closest is an hour away.
After calling 911, I called and probably awakened one of our
staff and asked him to call everyone else. Within five minutes
everyone went to work.

Neighbors and nearby friends came to help. Eventually
firefighters from five companies came to fight the fire and help
protect our sanctuary. We were fortunate: the air was humid, with
no wind. A dry creek that bi-sects our property separated us from
the fire. The fire trucks came down the dry creek and kept the blaze
from jumping to the side of our property where the birds, other
animals, homes and buildings are.
Tucson Avian Rescue and Adoption director Judy Ray and her
family and Sherri Brovas, one of TARA’s co-founders, called, woke,
and then collected people, and soon a four-vehicle convoy had begun
a 90-minute drive to help us move animals.
The fire was so hot and large that even from an eighth of a
mile away it felt like standing beside a large bonfire.
Evacuation plans we had already developed were implemented.
Birds indoors were captured and crated first, as I feared a power
outage if the electrical lines burned. While that was done, cages
and carriers were taken out of the storage and arranged near the
outdoor aviaries and enclosures.
Neighbors soaked the areas around buildings. I rounded up the cats
and dogs. Friends from Forever Home Donkey Rescue, about 12 miles
down the road, came with their van and took charge of getting the
horses and cattle to safety.
At 1:30 am we were told we could stand down. At least for
now the fire was contained and evacuation was no longer imminent. I
decided to keep things ready until the fire was completely out. We
left the crated birds and other animals in their carriers overnight.
Trucks and vans were on standby. Materials for evacuation left where
they were. We called the TARA crew on their cell phones and they
turned back before arriving, with the understanding that they were
available should things become worse.
Tom Trebeski, who is our webmaster as well as a TARA and
Oasis volunteer, had no cell phone. He spent the night in our small
guest house.
With our friends’ help we could have gotten out with all the
birds, stressed and shaken, but alive.
The fire did burn some of our property, but no buildings
were damaged. Most of the smoke and ash stayed clear of the birds.
Near dawn I kicked off my shoes and went to bed, fully
clothed. I napped until staff who had worked until almost 2 a.m.,
and one who had not been to sleep yet, showed up for work at 7 am.
I told them to go home after feeding and call it a day.
Later that afternoon Oasis associate director T.J. Georgitso
and I drove to Benson, 40 minutes away, to pick up supplies. We
were supposed to go to Tucson to pick up a bird at the airport at
9:30 p.m., but I did not feel comfortable having both of us away.
We arranged for two volunteers to receive the bird at the
airport, and returned to The Oasis at 6:30 to find rising wind
fanning the smoking hot spots back up into fires. Thirty-foot hollow
trees were burning on the inside, spewing sparks from their tops
onto unburned areas of dry grass.
The men got shovels and the water sprayers we use to spray
down the birds and set to work, soon joined by neighbors. I called
the fire department. Their line was busy. I called 911. When a
fire crew came, two hours later, 90% of the fire was out.
We continued to find and hose down hot spots for another day,
until at last a rain storm relieved us of duty. Never had we been so
happy to be soggy!
Our staff will use this experience to devise an even better,
quicker way of handling this sort of emergency.
There are fire-breaks to create, brush to be cleared. We
need to improve the three trailers we had already acquired as
evacuation vehicles. We learned that we will need to keep more
tools, back-up equipment, and supplies on hand, including bandages
for bird bites.
We are now suggesting that each staff member should keep a
small duffel bag containing a couple of changes of clothing, a
second pair of shoes, and copies of papers that might be important
to have in the event of an actual emergency evacuation.
We will not have to rise like the Phoenix from the ashes,
but as well-prepared as we thought we were, we learned that we must
become better prepared yet.

[The Oasis Sanctuary, 5411 N. Teran Rd., Benson AZ 85602;
520-212-4737; <>; <>.]

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