See the Story of the Fire Part 1 here
As the fire overtook the sanctuary grounds, we closed the doors and windows of the chimp house and waited. There was nothing more we could do.
Inside the building, you could hear a pin drop. Normally, when chimpanzees sense danger, they are anything but quiet. Alarm calls erupt to alert other chimpanzees of the threat. Males try to demonstrate their power in the face of danger by banging on the enclosures and pant-hooting. As the level of fear rises, the alarms calls evolve into screams. But during the fire, the Cle Elum Seven were completely silent.
We’ve noticed in the past that chimpanzees react differently to threats that they don’t quite understand. Chimps know what to do when they see a snake – either kill it or get out of its way. But how could they understand a fire like this? They acted similarly when they first arrived at the sanctuary. Chimpanzee caregivers jokingly refer to the brief period following a chimp’s arrival as the “honeymoon period.” Until they are comfortable in their new home, these normally loud and boisterous animals lay low and keep quiet. Perhaps the best thing you can do when you have no control is to try not to stand out.
The scene outside of the chimp house was surreal and most of the chimps crowded around the windows to watch. Foxie stayed near me. She didn’t look frightened, but she seemed to want a little bit of reassurance amidst the uncertainty. I was certainly frightened, but the firefighters were a reassuring presence, and not just because of their ability to protect us. From what I could see, they looked at ease in their position around the facility. I figured that if they felt safe, so should I. Familiar faces helped too – one of the firefighters was Calvin Beedle, our friend and excavator who did the digging for the chimp house and Young’s Hill.
After a couple of hours, the main fire made its way to the north and east of us and continued to burn out of control. A smaller, less intense grass fire slowly made its way around the chimp house, circling back to the driveway. By this time the sanctuary and our neighbors’ properties were a green island in the midst of thousands of acres of black. The air immediately around the chimp house had mostly cleared and it was safe to emerge and assess the damage. The rest of the staff returned to the sanctuary with water and food, and the chimps were able to have their dinner. It’s an odd feeling to serve dinner while the sanctuary is on fire.
The fires around the sanctuary burned until 2 a.m., with the occasional tree “torching” and providing a brief glimpse of the firefighters that continued to work in the dark. That night, with the sanctuary residence damaged and the threat of flare-ups all around us, Diana and I slept in the chimp house…or at least tried to. The sound of the fire engines idling just outside gave us some peace of mind.
In the morning, the chimps were intrigued by the makeshift camp set up in their kitchen, but more than anything, they seemed to wonder why we hadn’t started making their smoothies yet.