Camels survive deadly California wildfire in their valley sanctuary

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    The camels of Northern California's Sacred Camel Gardens. (Sukey Lewis/for WHYY)

    The camels of Northern California's Sacred Camel Gardens. (Sukey Lewis/for WHYY)

    One of California’s worst wildfires killed four and destroyed 1,200 homes last month. But it skipped over a herd of camels bedded down with their caretakers in a sanctuary.

    The sun was just setting over the Northern California hills as Stuart Camps drove his four-wheel drive truck down a narrow dirt road on his property. The hills on either side of us looked like something out of an apocalyptic movie set. The blackened ground was still smoking, and only charred trees remained of the formerly thick forest.

    As we crested the hill, a herd of two-humped Bactrian camels stood in the middle of their former pasture, now nothing but a sooty field.

    That field is part of the Sacred Camel Gardens, a 40-acre property three hours north of San Francisco, where Camps hosts camping retreats for visitors seeking hands-on experience with animals.

    The camels survived September’s Valley Fire, the third most destructive fire in California history, which killed at least four people and destroyed more than 1,200 homes.

    Bedding down with the herd

    Camps saw the fire before he heard it.

    “I saw the smoke billowing up into the sky, towering up in a big cloud,” Camps said.

    It was late afternoon on Sept. 12, and Camps and his neighbors were ordered to evacuate.

    But Camps had 18 camels, one camel trailer, and no way to get the animals out.

    “I decided a long time ago that we would probably stay here,” Camps said.

    Near the front gate of the camel pasture, there was a flat area about the size of a baseball diamond where Camps had spread gravel and the camels kept down plants that could fuel fire.

    The field is surrounded by tall pine trees on one side and dense brush on the other, and the camels often came there to eat and drink.

    Camps and another caretaker bedded down for the night alongside the camels in that clearing, the safest place they could find. They woke up at 3 a.m. on the second day of the fire to deep blackness.

    “There was an incredible roar off in the distance like a tsunami,” Camps said. “And I didn’t at first know what the hell it was.”

    StuartCampsReassuresOneOfTheCamels

    Director Stuart Camps reassures one of the camels from Northern California’s Sacred Camel Gardens. (Sukey Lewis/for WHYY)

    Soon it became clear that the roar was coming from a blazing fire off in the distance. Camps stood in the pitch black with the camels and waited to see what was coming. At some point they wandered off, down the valley, headed toward the roar. Soon, the sky turned almost as light as day as flames crested the ridge in front of them.

    “We could see the (camel’s) humps against the flames making their way up through the field,” Camps said. As the camels moved towards him up the hill, a stampede of wild rabbits raced around their hooves to escape the blaze.

    When the camels reached Camps they stopped. Once again the animals and their caretakers waited and watched as the fire advanced, catching the pine trees along the ridge on fire.

    “You could hear propane tanks exploding, car alarms going off,” Camps said.

    On the other side of the valley, winds whipped the fire up into tornadoes that would dance out into the field before blowing themselves out.

    For two hours, the flames chewed up the landscape around them. At its closest, Camps said they were eighty feet away.

    “To be frank, I didn’t know if we’d make it through,” Camps said.

    But he said the camels remained calm the entire time.

    “(They) were all holding each other the whole time, making sure everyone was safe,” Camps said. “No one was being hysterical, nobody was being pushed aside.”

    Finally, the fire continued past them, accelerating as it ate through the pine trees on the next ridge.

    When asked why he chose to stick by his camels the whole time, his response was simple.

    “I’ve been with the camels now for 21 years,” he said, his voice cracking. “(They’re) my life and it would have broken my heart to have left.”

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