Jess Peláez began working at 4 a.m. Saturday morning in the pitch black, lit by nothing except the eerie red glow of a not-so-distant brushfire. By that point, the Sand Fire had been burning for 26 hours and had surrounded nearly half of the Wildlife Waystation, a 160-acre exotic animal sanctuary in Sylmar.
"You could see fire tornadoes forming in the clouds of the smoke," Peláez says. "The flames would twist on themselves. You would hear lions starting to call to each other as the sun was beginning to rise. Then you would hear the chimps shrieking to each other and it just echoed around the canyon. It was completely surreal."
Peláez, who runs the environmental science research group Blueprint Earth, has worked with horses for more than two decades. When the Sand Fire broke out on Friday, she offered her services.
Along with other volunteers, Peláez helped get about 10 horses that she described as "pretty much unhandled" off the property. It wasn't easy. "We had to get terrified horses onto small, creaky, dark trailers with the smell of smoke and fire visible in the hills," she says.
Wildlife Waystation serves as a refuge for approximately 400 animals — almost all of whom had to be evacuated.
"They were evacuating rabbits in cat carriers," Peláez says. "We saw large raptors in cat carriers. Smaller primates were in some of the smaller containers. We saw two tiger brothers completely knocked out in one horse trailer together."
Lions and tigers often had to be sedated and brought out in horse trailers that had been strengthened for this type of situation. Large carnivores can't be transported in something as open as a standard horse trailer.
Peláez says the large predator evacuations were handled by experts who have experience working with such animals, not by standard volunteers.
Among the the first animals to be evacuated from the sanctuary were the birds. "They are very susceptible to any sort of change in their respiratory situation. The fumes can really negatively impact birds, so they were some of the first to go," Peláez says.
Numerous volunteers showed up to help, including many animal trainers who work in the entertainment industry. By the time Peláez left at 10 a.m., she says the vast majority of the sanctuary's nearly 400 animals were already gone or on their way out.
"I was blown away by the level of community response," Peláez says. "The teamwork was phenomenal. The animals were everyone's first priority and it showed in every way."