Chimpanzee Sanctuary Just Barely Survives Kittitas Wildfire

Aug 15, 2012

Firefighters on the scene of a destructive wildfire in central Washington are hoping to make major progress today toward containment of the blaze. The Kittitas County sheriff's office estimates more than 70 homes and cabins have been destroyed. The fire has chased hundreds of people from their homes.  Amidst the ashes, is one unusual story of survival.

Sarah Baeckler had very little notice a fast moving wildfire was bearing down on the non-profit she runs. Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest takes in chimps who've retired from biomedical research.

Baeckler says she had a plan for how to evacuate the seven chimpanzees currently in residence. "But in a situation like this where the fire broke out less than a mile away, we had literally minutes to get ready for it," she says. "There's just no way to evacuate seven chimps in that amount of time."

Baeckler says the apes were herded into the chimp house instead ... all the doors and windows slammed shut. Then one sanctuary staff member and the chimps hunkered down.

Fire engulfed the grounds, but all inside survived unscathed. "It is really just beyond words to imagine how close it came to the building," Baeckler says. "It's just feet away over there. I consider it a complete miracle."

Baeckler says the chimps are getting lots of treats now and they seem to have weathered the crisis, perhaps better than the humans.  "They were really quiet yesterday, which is unusual. They're kind of noisy in general. They're kind of taking it all in still. A lot of them are staying by the windows and watching."

Sarah Baeckler says the sanctuary's story of survival is testament in part to "firewise" landscaping and construction. The fairly new chimpanzee house was purposely built out of cement blocks to resist wildfire. It's also mostly encircled by gravel driveways and irrigated landscaping, which acted as fire breaks.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network