On Wednesday, July 25, 2018, the staff and volunteers of Living Free Animal Sanctuary were attending to their daily routines: walking dogs, cleaning the grounds, socializing with the cats, and oohing and aahing over the litter of puppies that had arrived a day earlier. They also planned to run a fire evacuation drill, something they do several times a year as part of their ongoing safety training. The sanctuary is nestled in the mountains, surrounded by nature that could become kindling without notice, so an evacuation plan is critical.
What came next was not a drill.
At 11:41 am, the Cranston Fire began. By 1:15 pm, the fire had rapidly spread, and evacuations were being ordered. Living Free was instructed to “shelter in place,” but at 4:30 pm, they were ordered to evacuate. Living Free had to evacuate 197 animals, including dogs, cats, horses, burros, and two sheep.
By 6:00 pm, all animals and people were safely out the front gates. Executive Director Randall Harris and Cattery Supervisor Matt Worthington were the last ones out. Harris said, “The fire was very high, hot, and close by the time we drove out. We weren’t sure the sanctuary was going to make it.”
The Cranston Fire was the first time the sanctuary was actually ordered to evacuate. During the Mountain Fire in 2013, the sanctuary evacuated for one day as a voluntary precaution, but not under evacuation order. Randall elaborated on the development and implementation of their life-saving evacuation plans:
“In 2014, our management team coordinated with volunteer Jill Tucker to develop the most efficient and practical plan. Jill is a retired public safety administrator, who participated in developing evacuation plans for the Sheriff’s office. Her help was invaluable. We walk through the plan a couple of times a year, both for evacuation and shelter-in-place.
Managers regularly update the Evacuation Manual, and ensure critical resources are available (livestock trailers, portable kennels, collapsible cages for the cats, bedding, sufficient transportation, food, water, generators, medical supplies, etc.). We also have protocols to remove and protect documents, digital assets, etc. Each team member is assigned an area of responsibility, and knows what to do without getting in each other’s way.
In these situations, our goal is a calm, efficient, fast and safe evacuation for both animals and people, and the best way to ensure that is through communication, training, preparation and practice.”
Getting everyone out safely is just step one. The next steps are moving into temporary shelter with the animals. This requires the support of the community and other animal welfare organizations. During the Cranston Fire, the following people, rescues and businesses opened their doors to house Living Free’s animals and their caregivers.
■ Loving All Animals took 31 small dogs and two litters of moms with puppies.
■ Patty Perez sheltered all the Living Free dogs and sheep the night of evacuation, and continued to care for the sheep for the duration of the evacuation.
■ Lake Riverside Community Center in Anza sheltered 118 cats and the entire community stepped up to ensure the team had everything they needed. Cattery Supervisor Matt Worthington found homes for 12 cats while they were sheltered there. A silver lining moment!
■ Anza Lions Club Gymkhana Center sheltered 9 of Living Free’s 11 equines while they were evacuated, including Hawkeye and Trapper, two ungentled mustangs the organization recently adopted from the Bureau of Land Management.
■ Humane Society of the Desert took 29 large dogs. Malinda Bustos had the foresight to build a row of kennels specifically for disaster relief, and that was a big advantage for Living Free, to have the animals together with their caregivers.
■ Two mustangs were relocated to a boarding facility in Garner Valley.
■ Wags & Walks, a Los Angeles-based rescue, took a litter of 7 puppies and their mother who had arrived the day before.
Other organizations that assisted by donating and collecting donations were:
■ Bianca Rae Foundation, which donated 30 elevated beds—a life saver.
■ Petco and Costco, both donated food
■ Palm Springs Animal Shelter
■ Loving All Animals
■ Animal Samaritans
■ Anza Lions Club Gymkhana Center
■ Lake Riverside Community Center
■ Patty and Aurelio Perez
■ Kim Hardee, Icon Productions and C.A.N.
Living Free received such a generous outpouring of food and supplies from the Desert Communities that they redistributed what they could not store or use to other animals in need, including an emergency shipment to Idyllwild when it ran out of food.
The fire burned to the sanctuary property lines, scorching forty acres leading up to the entrance gate. An old barn on the property was destroyed, but the sanctuary survived. Harris credits the Living Free team, saying, “It was a team effort. The wild land management that Rudy Nunez, Tony White, and Ray Barmore do all year cleared dead tinder and dead trees and knocked down the fire ladders, so the firefighters had a defensible space. And they defended it. Helicopter pilots made pinpoint water drops, bulldozers cut fire break, and it was as if they moved the fire right around us. When you see how close it came and where they stopped it—it was like a work of art.”
The sanctuary was so well prepared that Cal Fire was able to use it as a safe-zone field base of operations.
Despite the grounds surviving, and everyone evacuating safely, Living Free suffered damages totaling near $50,000*. Besides the 40 acres of land leading to the entrance gate, the fire damaged the main sign on Hwy. 74, and a power out-age resulted in the loss of thousands of dollars worth of medications. In addition, there were displacement costs, transportation, and other extraordinary expenses that quickly added up.
The sanctuary was displaced for a total of 10 days before returning “home.” Harris says they could not have done it without proper training and planning and the assistance of the community.
“The worst of times often brings out the best in people, and that was absolutely the case here,” Harris said. “Thank you Bill Ruttan, Kim Hardee, Michael Phillips and Tom Snyder, and everyone on your teams! We remain extremely grateful for the compassion and commitment of these organizations, and the overwhelming generosity of everyone that helped. On behalf of our rescues and team, we cannot thank these organizations or the desert communities enough. There’s never a shortage of animals to be rescued, and every penny counts. We are grateful for everyone’s continued support, and the animals thank you, too!”
If you would like to donate, become a volunteer or adopt a new pet from Living Free Animal Sanctuary, visit living-free. org for more information.
- Damage estimate based on data available at press time.