Beating the Blaze

By on October 25, 2007 with 0 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

The HSUS’s and The Fund for Animals’ Wildlife Center—a sanctuary and rehabilitation facility in Ramona, Calif., part of San Diego County—takes in native wildlife species and is situated in one of the most fire-ravaged areas of the state. Thus far, miraculously, the center has survived the fires, but just barely.

Cindy Traisi and her husband Chuck Traisi are two of the most dedicated people I know, and they’ve been running the facility for more than 20 years. We spoke with Cindy yesterday, two days after she was ordered to evacuate, along with most of the facility’s animals. Chuck has stayed behind to care for the animals who could not be readily moved.

What happened after the evacuation order?

Animals evacuated sign in Fallbrook, California
© The HSUS/Milani
A sign on a door in Fallbrook, Calif.,
indicates animals have been evacuated.

In the middle of the night, fog horns blasted. All 36,000 citizens of Ramona were told to evacuate. We called our volunteers Monday afternoon to ask them to help us evacuate the critters. We have a team of probably 17 long-time volunteers who are totally dedicated. Everyone responded and said “We’re on our way” but, one at a time, we then got phone calls saying the road was closed and they couldn’t reach Ramona. None of them could get to us. 

What was the scene when you left?

We evacuated Monday afternoon. Our property looked like a dust bowl. Our cars were covered with soot and holes in the yard a foot deep were completely filled in. 

From the back of our house at the top of the center’s 13 acres, we can see the Ramona airport, which is maybe a half-mile away. We could see flames licking the airport.

We were almost encircled by flames. The wildlife center is in a valley and flames were around us but not coming to us—it was just a miracle. Winds were in our favor the entire time. 

When you evacuated, what animals did you bring with you?

We loaded the domestic animals—two dogs, four parrots and 20-some cats—into two vehicles. We’ve split the animals up between four homes in regions of San Diego that aren’t in danger from the fires. Two staff members and I are staying in downtown San Diego—the mother of one of our staff has opened up her heart and her home for us.

Who stayed behind?

Chuck stayed at the center. Chuck is okay, but we’re of course worried sick because we’re not there. Chuck says the air is clear and he doesn’t feel like he’s in danger. Three volunteers who live in Ramona and chose not to evacuate also came to help.

Just as important, the center’s permanent residents remain in their natural enclosures—bobcats, cougars, coyotes, the pigmy hippo Hannah and Sampson, the African lion.

Besides these permanent residents you also serve as a rehabilitation center for wildlife. Were any of those animals affected?

We take in all of the orphan coyotes, bobcats and birds of prey from the area during baby season. Thankfully, most of those babies had been released before the fires came. The only animals to still be rehabilitated and released are a couple of young coyotes and bobcats. They’re fine and as soon as they are old enough we will release them.

What special concerns or challenges have you faced?

Electricity was lost on one part of the property Tuesday, so there was no water there. Expecting electricity might go completely, Chuck started filling up all of the empty jugs and buckets with water. Electricity and water later went off in the other part of the property as well, but Chuck feels he stored up enough water. And volunteers have agreed to bring in fresh supplies. Chuck is doing a jam-up job keeping the animals comfortable and fed, in spite of the fact there is no electricity or water.

How are the animals who remain at the center?

Sampson, an African lion at the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center
© Fund for Animals/Mindlin
Sampson, an African lion, is a permanent
resident of the Wildlife Center.

The water is out, but volunteers are meeting the needs using containers and relays. All the animals have fresh food. The freezers did not go out—thank God—so all of the food for the animals is safe. Everyone is going to bed with a full belly except for Chuck, who is eating peanuts and pretzels.

Has Chuck said anything about how the animals are behaving?

I think there is a sense of normalcy for the animals with Chuck and the volunteers being there. Chuck says even the most nervous of the animals are eating just fine and not showing any signs of tension or stress. The volunteers are making sure water buckets are clean, helping Chuck feed the animals, and scooping the enclosures. They are doing everything they can to make the animals think things are status quo. Having the animals in their same enclosures has helped to keep them calm.

Will this change any of your disaster preparedness plans for the future?

There are some things we know we would like to have. It would be so nice to know that we could have a permanent supply of water, so if the electricity went out we could still have water. And we could use some horse trailers for transport. But some of the animals—like the lion and hippo—can’t be transported.

Our area is kept very trimmed, with no excess overgrowth. The main thing we can do is keep the property free of brush and other things that would fuel a fire.   

Have you ever had to deal with a crisis like this?

There was a fire four years ago, but nothing that compared to this. In the 22 years Chuck and I have been here, this has been the most horrifying thing we’ve ever lived through. 

When do you expect to return?

Things seem to be getting a lot better. The winds have died down and those were the worst—like demon winds, spinning the fires. When we evacuated, there were wind gusts of up to 50 to 60 mph. I feel like tomorrow we’ll be back, I hope. We’re glued to the TV, listening for any sign that it’s okay to go back. 

What are your plans when you return?

I’m going to visit every animal on the property, just to see them and make sure they are okay. We’ll start cleaning up and ensuring the animals are comfortable, too. It will be a lot of clean up because of the wind and ash and soot. It’s going to be a pretty big job, but nothing that we can’t handle. 

Anything else you’d like to mention?

We’ve heard that hundreds of people have sent well wishes. We’re so grateful for all of the kind thoughts—it means an awful lot to us. We just want everyone to know that we’re okay and thank everyone for their concern. 

Wildlife/Marine Mammals

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