I volunteer at the Wildlife Waystation. Much of the time it is not glamorous. There’s a lot of poop involved. And shovels. There’s also hauling the cart with all the stuff you’ve shoveled up a hill in the relentless California heat to empty in the compost trailer. You have to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes - they are a constant presence in the scorching hills and canyons.
What I get from doing this work - aside from the satisfaction of helping disadvantaged critters - is proximity to all kinds of animals I would never encounter in everyday life. The Waystation provides refuge for over 400 exotic animals. There are big cats of every description, bears, chimpanzees and other primates, a camel, bison, and a goat named Valentina who thinks she’s the boss of me.
It takes very little time to become attached to this place and its residents. Prospective volunteers must attend an orientation session prior to being allowed into the compound.
On my first day, I sat with a group of people waiting for the talk to begin. A wolf began howling in the valley below. A few seconds later a lion roared, the power of it thrummed through my bones even from that distance.
The hair on my arms stood straight up. I’d been here five minutes and I was hooked.
You’ll understand, then, why recent events impacted me the way they did.
We’re sitting on the couch, the night winding down - dozy, ready for bed. Stephanie turns to me, holding up her phone.
“There’s a fire in the national forest. The Wildlife Waystation is calling for help - they have to evacuate.”
All thoughts of sleep explode. I jump up, dialing their number. “It’s Josh. I have a pickup. Do you need me up there?”
Allie, the sanctuary’s office manager, replies, “Come on up. The roads are closed but tell the police you’re with us and they’ll let you through.”
I didn’t know until later, but the fire knocked out the power and phones shortly after my call.
As I head for the door, Stephanie hands me a hastily brewed cup of coffee. I grab my camera and plunge into the darkness and the heat.
I pull up to the roadblock on Little Tujunga Road, the lights of the police cruiser blocking the road paint a jarring counterpoint to the garish red glow on the horizon. I explain my purpose and the officer waves me through.
The police lights fade behind me, the red horizon grows steadily larger, ash whispers against my windshield like some demented summer snowstorm. It rushes through my headlights creating the illusion I’m driving faster than I am.
I see movement on the side of the road and my lights briefly illuminate a group of men on horseback, fleeing the ranches scattered about the valley floor. Young horses, eyes rolling in fear, are running beside them, led by their halters. It’s a scene out of a different age - a jarring, weird spectral thing.
All of a sudden what I’m driving into hits me. “What the hell am I doing? It looks like the world is on fire.” But Valentina is up there, Chloe the affable cinnamon black bear and the sweet little monkey who speaks to me whenever I pass his enclosure to get tools. They don’t get to choose, they can’t leave their pens, they’re entirely at the mercy of … well … us. Just the thought of them trapped in their enclosures as fire rages through the compound clears any doubt about whether I’m taking a risk I shouldn’t be taking.
The road winds up into the hills and slowly, violently the world takes on a single hue.
As I round the last turn, I see the road is completely closed just beyond the Waystation’s drive. Instantly I understand why. The fire has topped the ridge opposite the compound - it couldn’t be more than three quarters of a mile away. The power’s completely out and the only light is from the flames that are flaring sometimes 150 feet in the air on the ridge. The air is hot, thick, ashy. I can hear the roar of the flames.
Firefighters, volunteers and staffers are milling in the parking lot. The staffers’ and volunteers’ faces drawn and worried, the firefighters are keeping a wary eye to the north and west.
The Waystation’s executive director, Susan, summons those who have arrived. “Everyone needs a buddy! No one goes down without someone to watch after them,” she tells us. Pickup trucks will be used for smaller animals that can be put in crates. The vet techs and staff will begin working on the big predators and staging them for pick up when trailers arrive.
And here’s the maddening quandary of an emergency like this. You can’t simply run down, throw open the doors and bundle a tiger into your car. The animals are already incredibly stressed and even if one COULD handle them safely on a normal day, there’s no way in hell they’re going to cooperate in the dead of night when there’s fire and terror.
Every big animal needs to be sedated. This has to be done precisely to ensure the safety of both animal and staff. Now do this in the dark under immense stress, knowing that a shift in the wind could bring disaster on you faster than you can react and you begin to understand the stakes. It’s a huge, terrible game of hurry-up-and-wait. Everything has to happen in its own time, but a wildfire doesn’t care about time. So you sit and you pray there will be enough time and that the wind won’t decide against you.
Then, just as truckloads of crated lemurs, rabbits, small monkeys and raccoons begin to emerge and things seem to be settling into a rhythm, the firefighters come. The fire is getting closer and everyone needs to go: now. We have to leave any animals not evacuated to the darkness and the whim of wind and fire. It’s devastating.
Allie asks everyone to head down toward the freeway and meet at the 7-11 there to wait for the firefighters - hopefully, please, God - to allow us back up to the animals again. Some of the volunteers are crying. The staff is slumped along the curb, their bodies a picture of concern for their charges, now alone in a valley rimmed with fire.
A tense almost two hours later we receive word the compound remains untouched and we can return. Everyone hastens back to their vehicle and begins the drive back. The situation hasn’t changed; it’s just two hours later.
Susan and Silvio, the compound manager, gather the group. The fire department’s telling everyone that at any moment we could be asked to leave again.
Finally it appears the word has gotten out despite the hour and power outages. Trucks towing horse trailers and flatbeds start lining up down the road. People from the community and other rescues and from the ranches below are braving the danger. People stand in the lurid glow of giant flame asking what they can do to help. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning and there’s a wildfire but the community is coming anyway.
As the sun spread a sooty glow across the eastern horizon, I headed back to Burbank to send photos to the Waystation’s social media folks. There is no cell reception up there on a good day. So with the power out my only option was to return to the valley. I caught an hour of sleep and woke to a request for video of the fire and evacuation. I set off once more for Little Tujunga Canyon Road and its police roadblock.
The officer on duty didn’t want to let me back up. The fire had flared up and the fire department had clamped down on more people coming up. I managed to talk my way through anyway but the warning set my nerves on edge. The air was oppressive and my lungs started to burn as I ascended into the hills.
The situation had changed very little other than the sun having come up. Gone was the apocalyptic all-encompassing glow of the fire at night. It was replaced with columns of black smoke on three sides of the Wildlife Waystation. The evacuation continued but the fear that the sanctuary would have to be abandoned to the fire was palpable in the staff.
Visibility had improved enough to allow choppers to fly in. That first thup-thup-thup of the huge water-dropping helicopter was amazing. When you’ve been up all night staring into the face of immolation and help arrives, there’s no describing the feeling. And when that help drops 4000 gallons of screw-you-fire! on the flames, it’s exhilarating.
The urgency to get animals out, however, did not let up.
The fire department ordered all non-essential personnel out despite the water drops. The fire was flanking us to the east and threatening to overwhelm the only road out of the area. I left reluctantly.
But even though the fate of the Wildlife Waystation was very much in doubt, there is a happy ending. Bizarrely, the fire burned around the sanctuary on three sides but never descended into the compound.
“The place should have burned,” I heard a volunteer comment, shaking his head. “Someone was looking out for us.”
All the evacuated animals are back in their homes without a single loss of life. It’s a testament to the skill and dedication of the staff and volunteers who fought for their charges at great risk to their own lives.