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Animal preserves act fast as flames close in

Wildlife Waystation evacuates 200 animals; Shambala Preserve's big cats are staying put, protected by the center's firefighting equipment.

September 01, 2009|Robert J. Lopez and My-Thuan Tran

As firefighters continued to battle flames from the Station fire Monday, founders of an exotic animal reserve north of Los Angeles attempted to evacuate hundreds of tigers, bears, lions and other animals as similar facilities in Acton have chosen to keep their beasts in place.

At the Wildlife Waystation, workers and a stream of volunteers worked late Monday night to evacuate more than 200 animals sheltered at the refuge in Little Tujunga Canyon.

In media interviews throughout the afternoon, staff pleaded for trucks to help evacuate the animals as flames raged nearby.

Within several hours a line of vehicles -- including an 18-wheel Budweiser truck -- arrived to help save the animals, said preserve spokesman Jerry Brown.

"It was a huge traffic jam," he said.

Meanwhile, at the Shambala Preserve, an exotic animal center in Acton, flames roared across the street. However, the 64 lions, tigers, leopards and other big cats housed there stayed put, despite a mandatory evacuation order for the area, said Chris Gallucci, vice president of operations for the preserve.

"We have everything to fight fires on this property," Gallucci said. "Our plan is to hold in place. We have done this for 40 years. We are very good at what we do."

He said that evacuating his animals en masse would clog Soledad Canyon Road, the only road that runs through the canyon area, Gallucci said.

"If you just panic and run, you're not being too professional," he said. "Dealing with exotic animals is completely different. You can't put the public at risk. We don't want to have the fire department and police department aiding us when they're trying to protect other people."

Gallucci said workers conduct a full-scale fire drill every six weeks, firing up their pumps and dropping them into the lake to make sure the water flows out of their hoses.

The center's entire crew has stayed on site since Friday, Gallucci said, including actress Tippi Hedren, who founded the preserve.

Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds," was on Soledad Canyon Road on Monday morning, monitoring the flames and talking to firefighters, Gallucci said.

The fires and smoke do not scare the big cats, Gallucci said.

It was a different scene at Animal Acres, a farm-animal sanctuary seven miles north, where chickens, cattle, horses and pigs were shaken by the fire, said Lorri Houston, president of Animal Acres.

Most of the sanctuary's 125 animals were moved Sunday to Animal Acres' evacuation center near Palmdale.

Moving the sanctuary's 11 pigs, each weighing more than 1,000 pounds, was not an easy task, Houston said.

Four horses and donkeys were also moved to Houston's house Sunday, but as fires shifted there Monday, the animals once again had to be relocated.

"We are really scrambling to keep our animals safe. If we're scrambling, other animal centers are probably having trouble too," Houston said. "The fire is so large that one minute one area is safe, and the next, it's not."

Heavy smoke in the area made it difficult for the animals and the volunteers who were helping to move them, Houston said.

Officials warned of unhealthy to hazardous air quality in the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Mountains and the west San Gabriel Valley on Monday.

High concentrations of fine particulate matter in the smoke near the fires were hanging in the air in the communities of Altadena, La Canada Flintridge, La Crescenta, Tujunga, Sunland, Montrose and Acton, according to the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

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my-thuan.tran@latimes.com

robert.lopez@latimes.com

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