Despite reports of confusion, lack of leadership, or plan, sanctuary successfully evacuates in the face of the Sand Fire
By Eddie Rivera, News Editor
Part two of a two-part series
Editor’s note: Last month, The Foothill Record published the first of a two-part series detailing a host of accusations and complaints regarding the leadership and management of the Wildlife Waystation in Little Tujunga Canyon. A rapidly growing number of volunteers and former employees spoke out against founder and former executive director Martine Colette, with concerns about her treatment of those who disagreed with her policies, and with what they saw as her “privileged” arrangement with rent, salary, and various expenses paid to her.
We attempted to contact her or her staff at the Wildlife Waystation for a response last week, but were rebuffed over the phone. The Waystation’s office administrator, Allie Delgado, was furious that we were calling and refused to allow us to speak to anyone. We asked if we could send email questions to Colette directly. Delgado responded, “You can, but if I were her, I would not answer them.” So we sent our questions.
The following day, new Waystation executive director Susan Hartland called back and informed us that the Waystation would not be responding to any of our questions, a number of which had to do with emergency and evacuation plans.
And then the Sand Fire broke out.
In a chaotic Saturday of fear, flames, and confusion, a massive volunteer effort took place at the Waystation that would eventually remove nearly all of the 400 animals from danger. We spoke to a number of participants about their experiences on Saturday, the worst of the fire days for the Waystation. The varied experiences drew a picture of heroism, frustration, and confusion, as the fire closed in and the Waystation attempted to evacuate.
The calls first began to go out on Friday. The Sand Fire had suddenly grown from 100 acres to 10,000 acres, and it was heading south to Kagel Canyon. With very little backup equipment, transport, or cages of their own, the Waystation began putting out social media calls on Facebook on Friday evening and into the weekend. The Waystation needed places to put animals, they needed flatbed trucks and trailers, and they needed medicines. Also, they needed veterinarians.
Hundreds of volunteers from near and far responded, either in person or by coordinating logistics or by arranging services. The Waystation, by many witness accounts, was overwhelmed and unable to handle many of the responses.
Paul Lee Padgett, a photographer and filmmaker from Irvine, and a longtime supporter of the Waystation, was on the set of a film shoot when he saw the urgent calls for help. He hopped into his Corvette and drove 90 miles an hour north to the site.
“I prayed for a safe and fast trip, and it was like the Red Sea parted,” he said.
When Padgett arrived, the line of trucks and trailers and gawkers had stretched from Osborne and Foothill in Lake View Terrace, all the way up the road to the Waystation. Seeing no way up the canyon, Padgett cornered a police officer, showed his National Geographic media credentials, and was eventually given a police escort to the Waystation.
Padgett quickly gathered as much information as he could. What was needed? What do you have? How much medicine? What kind? He then drove back down the hill to a restaurant parking lot, where he immediately set up a command post. As a pilot, former rescue diver, and disaster-relief specialist-contractor who has actually seen an F5 tornado, he knew the drill, so to speak.
“I set up a strike force,” he told The Foothill Record. “I lined up trucks and trailers, according to what was needed.” Padgett also received help from the staffs of state assemblymember Patty Lopez and other elected officials.
The calls for help kept going out on Facebook. An urgent request was sent out for a large air-conditioned warehouse or airport hangar to house the Waystation chimps. For at least an hour, messages were traded: There was no facility; yes, there was a facility. We need it now, we don’t need it now. We need it NOW.
Finally, Signature Flight Support at Van Nuys Airport notified the Waystation that they had cleaned and prepped a large hangar to house the chimps. They waited for a call back.
Back at the Waystation, former experienced volunteers and employees who had been let go by Colette arrived to help. They were turned away.
“There didn’t seem to be anyone in charge,” said former employee Michael Rapp, who was asked to leave the site. He bemoaned the lack of any emergency plan or supplies, saying, “`They asked for manpower, crates, vehicles, medication, places to take the animals, and money. What plan could they possibly have had? The plan was to beg everyone on Facebook.’”
Rapp went home and monitored the situation as best he could on social media.
Tracy Samcyzk saw the frantic messages on Facebook early that Saturday morning, rushed to the Waystation, and then asked what was needed. She had an SUV, but she knew that would not be enough.
“They told me they needed a trailer, so I went to U-Haul and rented a flatbed trailer and came back.”
Samcyzk joined the long, slow line of cars, trucks, and trailers waiting to go up the hill. At the Waystation welcome center, all was confusion.
Samcyzk and other volunteers began asking, “Where can we go? What can we do? What do you need?” Eventually, after waiting more than 4 hours in line, Samcyzk and others simply moved up into the parking lot area.
“No one knew anything.” she said. “Everyone was, `I don’t know.’” Among those asked and failing to answer was Executive Director Hartland.
“I would ask her something and she would say, `I don’t know, but I will check.’ And there would be no follow-up,” Samcyzk recalled.
Samcyzk acknowledged that the situation was stressful, adding, “We knew they were working hard, but there was just no communication anywhere. It was hard to know anything. There was no way we could help.”
Eventually Samcyzk was told that her trailer was needed, and she positioned it to be ready. Then, she said, she was told by a staffer, “We have to evacuate, but don’t worry, all the animals are out.” This was at about 3 p.m. Confused, Samcyzk headed out, but stopped when she saw Hartland.
“Look,” Samcyzk told Hartland. “I’m not trying to be an a—hole, but all the animals are not out. You’re lying. Are you sure we have to evacuate?”
Hartland, confused, reportedly said, “I don’t know.”
Samcyzk slammed on her brakes and said, “You’re lying. I can see animals from here, I can see wolves, I can hear the chimps, I can hear the peacocks, they’re down there.”
As Hartland responded, Samcyzk noticed a sheriff’s deputy standing nearby and asked, “Do we need to evacuate?” The deputy responded, “no.” Samcyzk eventually left in the early evening, frustrated at the lack of organization. She had been there all day.
Apparently, the confusion over evacuation arose when the fire department reportedly told Hartland they could stop evacuating at that point. That critical message was never communicated, thus the confusion.
Meanwhile, Signature Flight Support (at the Van Nuys Airport) continued to wait for the phone call to prepare for the arrival of the chimps. The call would never come. Said one former employee, who was closely watching the situation unfold, “There was no plan, there were no transport cages, no transport vehicles, no accredited facilities to take the animals to, and no working generator in case of power outages.”
The final successful evacuation would not be completed until late Saturday. There are differing accounts, however, as to whether or not any of the chimps were eventually evacuated, or left to be sheltered in place. At 3:23 p.m. the Waystation had posted on its Facebook page, “The bears have been loaded and headed to safety now!” But at 9:30 p.m, a volunteer leaving the site had reported that bears, along with other animals, were still at the Waystation.
Meanwhile, Padgett was thinking, as he saw flames crest the ridge above Little Tujunga Canyon and begin to head down at about 1:30 in the afternoon, that staff and volunteers had about 10 minutes before they would have to leave, if the fire didn’t stop.
And then the flames suddenly, inexplicably stopped.
“We were two-thirds surrounded by flames at that point,” Padgett said later, in a phone interview. “I seriously thought there might be a moment where we would literally have to leave the animals to save ourselves.”
The moment came and went.
Still, the gargantuan task of sedating and transporting the exotics—lions and tigers—as well as moving out the entire menagerie, had been ongoing. According to Padgett, between 12 to 17 veterinarians, led by Waystation vet Rebecca Walser, along with vet technicians, were attempting to calm the animals. The temperature was over 100 degrees, likely higher in the compound, and a generator stopped working. There were no phone lines, poor cell-phone reception, and little food and water.
Said a former employee, “They had a perfectly good generator that they had purchased five years ago from a foundation grant, along with a truck. The generator could have powered the whole facility.”
According to the employee, the generator had not been used since its purchase, and it sat rusting in a nearby canyon. (According to the same employee, Metabolic Studios, a division of the Annenberg Foundation, provided a $183,810 grant to the Waystation shortly after the 2009 Station Fire, part of which was used to acquire the generator.)
Down in the compound, veterinarians and vet techs were sedating animals. Questions began to arise as to the number of actual veterinarians there, as opposed to vet techs, who are assistants and not allowed to administer sedatives.
But the number of available facilities and supplies continued to become available from other animal organizations, including from Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve in Acton to Cesar Millan’s facility in Santa Clarita, to the Los Angeles Zoo (which was on standby but received no animals), and a host of similar groups in Southern California.
As the afternoon turned to evening, and tempers and temperatures rose and fell, one person was missing from the scene—Martine Colette. Reportedly hospitalized for knee surgery four weeks ago, she was, according to more than one witness, not on the Waystation property over the weekend. According to unconfirmed reports from Waystation volunteers, Colette had been attending a Safari fundraising dinner at her home at the Waystation on Sunday evening. (Colette was reportedly among all the employees asked to evacuate on Friday morning. Her return time is still unconfirmed.)
More than one volunteer we spoke to expressed gratitude at her absence. And, as Padgett admitted, “She would have been a hindrance.”
On Monday, as the fire headed north with only 25 percent containment, Waystation staff held a meeting to assess the weekend and create a working emergency plan.
At the same time, the Waystation’s Facebook page administrator was busily removing negative comments from that page.
According to Stephanie Brady, who monitored the page, “I had read a comment (from Anna Marie Travers Reams) saying that the evacuation shouldn’t cost a lot because if you have permits for animals, you have a responsibility to have all the necessary supplies along with a plan to evacuate.”
As Brady explained, “There were nine comments to her comment, all essentially saying the same thing, including some people’s first-hand experience of being up there and the chaos they saw.”
There were 42 comments following Reams’s initial comments. Eventually only 18 comments remained, all of them positive.
“It was total chaos,” said Padgett, of the weekend. “There was a 25- to 30-year-old antiquated plan they were trying to work from. They had trucks that weren’t maintained that broke down once they got up on the road.
“They need new leadership and new energy,” Padgett continued. “They need to change their stuck, antiquated ways. Martine is stuck and resistant. I’m an expert in this. Emergency training changes constantly, so if you’re not evolving with that, you’re in trouble.” Padgett added, “They need to ask Tippi Hedren and her people, to see how they do it.”
Padgett also recommended mandatory emergency training courses for the volunteer staff at the Waystation, saying, “There is no way in hell you can be successful at something like this if you don’t have a plan that you have reviewed and gone over.”
Padgett is also, of course, grateful and relieved that a tragedy was avoided over the long, chaotic weekend.
“If you want to talk about divine intervention,” he recalled, “if you look at aerial photos, there is a cutout circle where the Waystation is. That fire should have burned that place to the ground.”
Still, Padgett acknowledges that the Waystation accomplished its mission. As he reportedly told Hartland, “There might have been hiccups, and things that you would never do again, but tell your team that you accomplished your objective. All of those animals lived.”