Multiple fires are raging in Southern California. A series of Santa Ana wind-driven wildfires have destroyed hundreds of structures, forced thousands to flee and smothered the region with smoke in what officials predicted would be a pitched battle for days.

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Sylmar fire

The Creek fire left Wildlife Waystation staffers working in the dark with lions, chimpanzees and bison

A firefighter monitors the Creek fire as it burns a house near the intersection of Johanna Avenue and McBroom Street in Shadow Hills. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
A firefighter monitors the Creek fire as it burns a house near the intersection of Johanna Avenue and McBroom Street in Shadow Hills. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

On Little Tujunga Canyon Road at the Wildlife Waystation, staff members worked on little sleep to keep the wild and exotic animal sanctuary — and its residents — safe.

Martine Colette, founder of the Wildlife Waystation, kept her walkie-talkie close while she worked Wednesday, as firetrucks rolled in and out of the parking lot. Smoke billowed from the mountains nearby, sending ash through the air. Firefighters continued to put out spot fires throughout Wednesday.

Colette, who lives in a home at the center of the facility, woke up at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday to see the fire blazing nearby. She and her staff immediately began working to ensure the animals didn’t burn in their enclosures.

Once dawn came, they began preparing for evacuation. They separated the different types of caging, some suitable for hyenas, others for Siberian tigers, another suitable for a chimpanzee. They had to figure out what to do about the buffalo roaming loose in the fire zone, as well as what they’d do with animals with small lungs — like birds — who wouldn’t be able to survive the smoke. 

“The smoke was very thick,” Colette said. “It was very, very scary.”

The power went out early Tuesday evening. 

“You’re now working in the dark and you’re working with very dangerous animals. You’re working with lions and tigers and leopards and hyenas and mountain lions, things like that,” she said. Staff worked by flashlight.

“I have the greatest staff anybody could possibly want,” she said.

Some of the animals were evacuated to a zoo and others to motion picture compounds — facilities capable of dealing with them. Of 350 to 400 animals usually housed at Wildlife Waystation, 100 were not evacuated. 

Early Wednesday, the fire kicked off again.

“Out of nowhere, this huge inferno exploded,” she said. “It felt like you were in the middle of hell with everything burning around you.”

The fire burned a portion of the property, but there has not been a loss of animal life, as far as Colette knows right now. 

Colette founded the Wildlife Waystation in 1976. It relies on donations and memberships to raise the 2.5 to 3 million needed every year to continue operating. 

They estimate the cost of damage and of evacuating the animals as being easily in the tens of thousands of dollars. 

“We truly appreciate any gift through this very difficult time,” Colette said.

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