Since the fire on Monday, many people have asked why we didn’t evacuate the chimpanzees. It’s a good question, and instead of answering everyone individually I thought I’d share an answer that I gave in the comments section of a previous blog post.
To preface, I should say that we certainly took this fire seriously. As the fire approached the sanctuary, firefighters parked their engines around our property and prepared to protect our buildings and those of our neighbors. At that time we were encouraged to evacuate. Diana and I packed up our dog and two cats and Diana drove them to safety. But evacuating chimpanzees is much different than evacuating dogs and cats, or even livestock. Hopefully this post will shed a little light on our decision to ride out the fire as best we could:
Let me start by saying that we are fortunate, as a relatively small sanctuary, to even be able to consider evacuating the chimps. For some of the larger sanctuaries, rapid evacuation would be out of the question for all but a handful of the residents.
Still, evacuating chimpanzees safely is something that takes time, no matter what your situation is. The chimps must first be moved to an area of the building that would allow you to connect a transfer cage or, alternatively, an area that would provide a safe environment for anesthesia. At CSNW, this area is a series of four smaller interconnected rooms that we call the Front Rooms. After the chimps are shifted, transfer cages must be moved from our storage area behind the barn to the chimp facility. The chimps that are cooperative may be loaded into transfer cages one at a time without anesthesia. Those who are not cooperative (most if not all of them) must be manually injected or darted with an anesthetic. Chemical anesthetics take up to ten minutes to take effect and the chimps must be isolated and darted individually so that one chimpanzee is not waking up while you are going in to remove another. After all the chimps are loaded into transfer cages, the cages must be loaded into a trailer and secured (if the chimps are anesthetized the cages can be loaded and secured beforehand). Typically, the transport truck would not leave until all the chimpanzees on board have recovered from anesthesia, so that a medical emergency (like respiratory depression) does not occur on the road, but in the face of a dire emergency this protocol could be ignored.
While doing all of this you would need to weigh the risk of transporting them against the risks of staying. If the fire overtook the sanctuary while the trailer was still in the driveway, the chimps would be at even greater risk. Considering that we had less than an hour’s notice before the fire overtook the property, there is no way that I would have attempted to move them.
Some emergencies cannot be avoided. In these cases, proper planning, construction, and maintenance are the only things that will help. Sanctuaries in the southeast must be prepared for hurricanes, those in the plains states must be prepared for tornadoes, and those on the west coast must be built to withstand earthquakes. For CSNW, wildfires were part of the planning process when Keith and the original Board of Directors were designing the facility. In addition, the county requires a plan for “defensible space”, which is the area around the building that slows or impedes the fire and provides a safe space for firefighters to work in.
The chimp facility is built mostly of concrete, with cementitious siding and a metal roof above the chimps. The exterior is designed to withstand brush fires and stray sparks. Inside the chimp areas there is very little in the way of combustible material. Still, nothing is 100% fire proof, so our fire plan includes a scenario where the interior of the building would be overtaken by smoke or flames. In this case, we couldn’t let the chimps run free because it would endanger the lives of the men and women working to protect the sanctuary. However, we would let them back out into the greenhouse, which would allow them some movement away from an interior fire and some chance to avoid the smoke that would accumulate inside the closed building.
This was the day that we hoped would never happen, but given where we are located, we knew it could. The chimp facility survived due to the firefighters’ efforts, smart planning, good building codes, and a little bit of good fortune. Relocating the chimps to a safe location would have been great, but it would not have been possible in such a short amount of time.
In the coming weeks we will be analyzing our response and determining what went well and what we could have done better. We will undoubtedly be exploring new protocols and equipment based on what we experienced in our real life trial by fire that could help us be even better prepared for future emergencies.