Furry Wildfire Survivors Return to Charred Shelter

Special to The Times

Past blackened lots, past rows of chimneys marking the spots where houses once stood, the convoy of creatures traveled back to their own ruined home.

Two raccoons, a pair of black bear cubs, a coyote and a great horned owl returned by pickup truck last week to Wildhaven Ranch, an animal sanctuary that, like many of its neighboring human dwellings, burned in last month's wildfires.

Executive Director Diane Dragotto Williams, her husband Roger and a staff of volunteers safely evacuated their furred and feathered charges during the blaze, housing them at temporary facilities over the following weeks.

But they lost nearly everything else: most of the facility's buildings and equipment, its computers and records and nearly all of their personal belongings, including clothes, wedding albums and childhood home movies.

Just a few structures remained unscathed. The black bear enclosure, a large aviary and the couple's one-bedroom house were spared the flames. It was a scant fraction of the once-sprawling sanctuary, but enough to accommodate the animals' homecoming, enough to kindle the Williamses' hope that Wildhaven can rise again from the scorched soil.

The air was still damp and cold from the previous night's storm when the animals arrived, and the smell of wet ash drifted off charred and twisted metal -- the remains of the sanctuary's buildings and cages. The desolate site erupted into activity as the couple and their creatures returned.

Roger Williams, volunteer Dayna Perkins and other helpers unloaded the 170-pound cubs from their kennels aboard Perkins' pickup truck, leading them on leashes toward their enclosure, where they galloped happily and plunged into their wading pool.

The pair were adopted as newborn cubs, just days old and ounces in size, after two young hikers found them in the nearby forest and mistook them for abandoned puppies. Diane Williams and her staff hand-fed them every two hours for months. For a while, the couple boarded the bears in their house, where the animals napped on sofas and scrambled on the dining room table before graduating to their enclosure.

But it was the unlikely survival of the coyote that inspired the opening of Wildhaven in 2000. Found as a partially paralyzed pup in 1997, the animal regained use of its hind limbs after daily physical therapy sessions with Diane Williams. Now its recovery serves as a model for her efforts to rehabilitate the site.

Bracing against the chill, Diane Williams acknowledged that the evacuation had been a brief break from the task of rebuilding a refuge that had represented a leap of faith in the first place.

A wildlife artist by trade, she began training to rehabilitate live animals in 1994, then began planning her own sanctuary for orphaned, injured and abandoned creatures.

"The whole community thought I was crazy," she said. "They thought I would not be able to do it. They thought I was a dreamer."

After three years of lobbying the state Legislature, she obtained a $1-million state grant to build her facility, a 35-acre sanctuary with chain-link enclosures and picturesque western-style buildings to house the animals.

Eventually she joined a state program to rehabilitate and release orphaned black bear cubs, becoming the only facility in Southern California permitted to do so, said Mike McBride, an assistant chief for the state Department of Fish and Game.

McBride called the program an "elite" effort in terms of "the amount of time, effort and specific expertise it takes."

Only weeks before the fires, Diane Williams released her first bear, a 10-month-old cub, into the San Bernardino Mountains. But the flames that burned through the community shortly afterward threatened to destroy her accomplishments.

She learned of the encroaching fire at 2 a.m. Oct. 26 and began evacuation, freeing animals that could fend for themselves and packing those that couldn't. In her haste to load the animals, she left almost everything else behind.

By 9 a.m., as bullhorns blared warnings through the streets, the couple, their staff and several truckloads of creatures were snaking down a dirt back road off the mountain, the only route still open to them.

"We caravaned with our own little Noah's Ark of 25 birds of prey and mammals," Diane Williams said.

A dozen owls, eagles and falcons went to the Coachella Valley Wild Bird Center in Indio for safekeeping and will remain there until Wildhaven is restored. The mammals were boarded at an exotic animal facility in Hesperia.

Meanwhile, the couple took care of Wildhaven business at Roger Williams' office at the Morgan Stanley branch in Apple Valley. The company provided Diane a desk and phone and offered the use of the office kitchen for preparation of bear formula and animal feed. Several employees donated cash, clothes and other items to the couple and their creatures.

"Fortunately, we didn't have to house any of the animals here," said the branch manager, Nathan Lynch. "I think that would have made it more interesting."

A week after the fire, Diane Williams anxiously returned to Wildhaven.

"It was like an atom bomb had hit," she said.

She was relieved, however, to find the most important structures -- the bear enclosure and aviary -- intact. With those pieces as her bedrock, she's making plans to rebuild, filing insurance claims, seeking federal fire assistance and launching fund-raising efforts.

"Knowing the folks at Wildhaven, they'll make lemonade out of lemons," said McBride, of the Fish and Game Department. "They'll roll up their sleeves and there's a good chance they'll make it better than ever."

Wildhaven can be contacted at (909) 337-7389 or through its Web site, www.wildhaven.org.

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