When the wind picked up the fire spread
And the grapevines seemed left for dead
And the northern sky looked like the end of days
The end of days…
Once again, Earth’s inhabitants are suffering through yet another record-breaking wildfire season. Forests are ablaze from Turkey to Siberia and almost everywhere else, sending clouds of haze over the northern hemisphere from the burroughs of New York to the ice sheets covering the North Pole.
Here in the American West, a combination of social and environmental factors has resulted in several consecutive years of devastating wildfires and oppressively hazy conditions.
As with many ecosystems around the globe, the continent’s prairies and boreal forests have depended on periodic fires to recycle nutrients since before humans even existed. However, the current frequency, intensity and duration of large fires is unprecedented and concerning.
As of yesterday, there were 91 active wildfires in the continental United States and another 241 fires burning in the Canadian province of British Columbia (just across the border from Washington State). The monstrous Bootleg Fire in southern Oregon has been sustaining itself for over a month and has charred half a million acres of land on its own. Thanks to high winds, prolonged drought and excessive heat, some of the region’s larger fires may continue to burn for several months.
Currently, the sanctuary is covered in a dystopian fog that obscures the horizon and, much like that of a smoggy urban area, could be unhealthy if breathed in for prolonged periods of time. As with past summers, the chimps will continue to have access to the outdoors unless conditions worsen to “Hazardous.” The air quality hasn’t dipped as low as it did last September, but we still have several months left before we’re literally out of the fire. Thankfully, the forecast indicates that atmospheric conditions should improve over the next few days, giving us some relief from the haze.
In the past, the sanctuary team has had some close calls with brush fires. The scariest experience was the Taylor Bridge Fire, which ignited near the sanctuary in August of 2012 and almost reached the Chimp House before firefighters could get it under control. If you’d like to read the harrowing story from several different perspectives, you can still read the blog posts from that nightmare of a week almost a decade ago: The Story of the Fire (Part 1), Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.
Another close call occurred in 2016 when Jamie, a proactively vigilant chimpanzee, notified her caregivers that a brush fire had ignited within sight of the Chimp House. Thanks to Jamie’s efforts, local firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze and subsequently gave her the title of Honorary Firefighter in 2017.
Given the ubiquitous threat of wildfire in our region, several of our dedicated blog readers have recently asked how we protect the sanctuary and its residents. Today’s post will review our strategy for coping with these dicey conditions so that you can all stay informed.
First and foremost, here’s an elementary chemistry lesson: fires need fuel, heat and oxygen. The ideal strategy minimizes these three components.
We can’t rid the sanctuary of oxygen (for obvious reasons), but we can lessen the amount of combustible material around the property so that any nearby fires have less to consume. When it comes to weed control, bringing in natural grazers can be a sustainable long-term solution. Since 2018, our unofficial fire prevention squad has consisted of four rescued Jersey cattle who subsist on seasonal vegetation that would otherwise become a fire hazard when it desiccates in late summer.
The staff take care of the rest by mowing, trimming, and spraying weeds. Importantly, we avoid any activities that could accidentally ignite a new fire. For example, our crew avoids using machinery (tractors, vehicles, mowers) in tall grass during the summer and restricts outdoor welding to the cooler and wetter months.
Additionally, we make sure that there are no large trees or shrubs within a certain radius of the Chimp House so that it would be difficult for a fire to jump closer to the main building. This perimeter of defensible space is mandated by our county’s regulations, but we would gladly maintain it even if it weren’t. In the case of the aforementioned Taylor Bridge Fire, such a boundary enabled the firefighters to safely protect the building with the chimps (and human) safely inside. The building itself is predominantly built from concrete and steel and is covered with a metal roof, so it’s unlikely that the structure itself would catch fire. The interior is also constructed to code and has a sprinkler system that would activate if we had a fire inside the building. The chimps always have access to outdoor enclosures like the greenhouses and chute to which they could escape if the indoors were filled with smoke.
The Chimp House is now surrounded by a system of wildfire sprinklers that J.B. built in 2014. In just a few seconds, any staff member can start a propane-fueled pump that collects water from a nearby pond and sprays it into the air around the building. This mist creates a humid microclimate which effectively dampens any airborne embers, converting the building’s immediate surroundings into a fire-resistant oasis. Our staff regularly tests and maintains the sprinkler system during the late spring and summer.
Finally, local firefighting departments know the sanctuary well, have visited the site and the chimps, and consult with the sanctuary’s leadership on issues related to fire prevention. In turn, we use their social media channels to stay informed about local conditions.
Even at our maximum level of preparedness, there are limits to our defenses and we will remain open to contingency plans. For example, we have the capacity to evacuate all humans, canines, felines and bovines from the property if another evacuation order is given, but we would be less likely to evacuate the chimps. Many supporters have asked if we have ever, or would ever, evacuate the Chimp House in one of these situations, and the answer is complicated. As J.B. explained in the aftermath of the Taylor Bridge Fire, keeping the chimps in their defensible home has always been the safest option for them and for us. This statement is more true than ever given the upgrades to the facility and additions to our chimp family in recent years; loading sixteen chimps onto a trailer would be a big challenge.
While we may encounter a scenario that causes us to do otherwise, we hope we never have to resort to such extremes.
It’s almost certain that our fire prevention and emergency response strategies will continue evolving as new technology and information become available, we continue the ongoing expansion of the facility, and the regional climate shifts further into precarious territory. Through all this and more, we will keep doing whatever is needed to keep the sanctuary’s beloved residents safely out of harm’s way.