Safari West Wildlife Preserve is situated in Santa Rosa, California, and is home to almost 1,000 exotic animals. And the collection of creatures is the culmination of Peter Lang’s life work. When wildfires threatened the animals’ future, then, Peter put his life on the line in an attempt to save them.
In October 2017 wildfires raged through Northern California. In particular, the devastating blazes hit Butte, Lake, Mendocino, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties; they scorched some 210,000 acres and left 90,000 people with no choice but to leave their homes.
The fires had devastating consequences for the residents of the affected areas. In total, they were thought to have claimed 8,900 structures. And tragically, 44 people lost their lives to the inferno, with at least 185 injured as a result of the blazes.
Furthermore, by the time the fires were extinguished in late October 2017, their three-week rampage had made them the most lethal of their kind ever recorded in California. However, it is not just us humans who are affected by such disasters.
Animals – both wild and domesticated – also get caught up in wildfires. Those that roam free are forced to flee or find shelter; tragically, though, some of them fall victim to the flames. Meanwhile, some families are forced to leave pets behind when evacuation orders catch them by surprise.
For some, evacuating their animals at short notice would be an impossible task. That was the case for Peter Lang and his wife Nancy. In the 1980s Peter had bought a 400-acre cattle ranch in Sonoma County, and he later transformed the land into a breeding facility for his assembly of exotic creatures.
By 2017 the ranch – now named Safari West Wildlife Preserve – was home to 1,000 animals. Among the collection were rhinos, cheetahs and giraffes. And since 1993 the Langs have invited visitors to come and learn about the creatures they keep.
When the wildfires hit in October 2017, however, Peter and Nancy were entertaining guests at the preserve. As the evacuation order came in, then, it was already a full-scale mission to ensure all staff and visitors got to safety. And that was without considering the animals.
As the group got ready to leave, the stressful situation was made even worse when Peter, then 77, suddenly vanished. So while sheriffs ensured everyone else – including Nancy – got off the preserve, they left Peter – who was nowhere to be seen – behind.
However, Peter’s sudden disappearing act wasn’t accidental. In 2017 he told The Press Democrat that he had chosen to stay with his animals. “The sheriffs were evacuating everybody,” he said. “And I just wandered off. I couldn’t leave.”
Instead, Peter worked through the night to ensure his animals’ safety. At the start of the evening, he stifled smouldering areas by rolling over them in his Jeep; he even put some out with his own feet. Peter also moved flammable items – including cars – out of the way of his precious “pets.”
One of Peter’s main priorities, though, was protecting his hyenas. Roaming free on his land, the pack would run from the encroaching flames and move whenever Peter extinguished one blaze – only for another to pop up.
Using garden hoses, Peter also had to save his cheetahs, which had been enclosed in a night house. By prioritizing dealing with the most immediate threats, the animal lover was therefore able to keep on top of the situation – even if he was forced to improvise at times.
Peter revealed, “When I ran out of hose, I grabbed another one and hooked it on and kept going. Then you grab a hose and see that someone ran over it, and you’re mad as hell because the bent brass fitting won’t work. Then you grab another hose that someone had cut off, so half the time you’re working angry.”
Peter’s fire hose also helped him keep cool as the fire raged, since he would douse himself completely every 15 minutes. And while his clothes didn’t stay damp for long in the intense heat, seemingly nothing could stop Peter on his quest to keep his animals safe.
In 2017 Peter told Visit California, “I stayed on the move all night. There’s a lot of adrenaline, so you don’t have time to get tired.” On occasion, though, it may have felt like he was fighting a losing battle. “The fire was everywhere. Some areas were fully engulfed in flames,” he added.
One such area was Peter and Nancy’s family compound. But with his animals his priority, all the hero could do was watch as his home and three more houses fell victim to the flames. “I could see the glow as it burned,” Peter recalled.
And by the time the fire had passed, it had claimed Peter and Nancy’s home and damaged some structures and fences on the preserve. But, miraculously, none of the couple’s 1,000 animals had been harmed.
In the wake of the fire, word of Peter’s heroic reactions spread. A GoFundMe page was established to help Safari West Wildlife Preserve employees rebuild their lives. In addition, the American Red Cross honored Peter with the 2018 animal rescue award.
However, despite the accolade, Peter played down his actions. “I don’t consider [my rescue efforts] heroic. It was just something I had to do,” he told KPIX in June 2018. Nevertheless, he added, “[It’s] highly complimentary and perhaps luckily deserved – perhaps.”