ATASCADERO — Saturday afternoon, in a long, cement corridor in the basement of Atascadero City Hall, a giant, brown radiated tortoise slowly reached out one scaly, clawed foot in front of the other, locked into a head-to-head race with another giant, brown radiated tortoise headed down the corridor on a parallel track as volunteer Ashleigh Sinclair looked on, a smile spreading across her face.
“Which one is going to win?” Sinclair said. “It’s going to be close!”
The animals were just two of more than 100 turtles and tortoises that recently had a nice, relaxing vacation in Atascadero thanks to the massive wildfire that threatened their home at the Ojai Turtle Conservancy earlier this week. According to Paul Gibbons, Chief Operating Officer at the Turtle Conservancy, the destructive Thomas Fire in Ventura County burned structures right across the street from the facility, forcing conservancy staff and volunteers to pack up and evacuate the animals in the middle of the night.
“The fires flared up Monday evening,” Gibbons said. “It was coming toward us, so in the middle of the night, basically just after midnight Monday and then into the wee hours of Tuesday, our team started to go into evacuation mode and they started packing animals. By mid-day Tuesday they were all on trailers and the fire had grown to 25,000 acres, so we took off.”
Gibbons touched bases with his colleague at the American Zoo Association, local Zoo Director Alan Baker, who offered to help. Atascadero is in a healthy temperature range for the animals and was the closest place to bring them that wasn’t in danger from the fires, Gibbons said. There was not an adequate area at the Charles Paddock Zoo to house the refugee turtles, so Baker came up with the idea of putting them in the basement at City Hall.
“We really wanted them secure and we wanted to be able to manage them all in one group, so I called the City Manager Rachelle (Rickard) and said ‘we need the basement’ and she said ‘do what you’ve got to do.’”
The turtles and tortoises — dozens of different species including
“We just said ‘we’ll hold them here as long as you need, we’ll do what we need to do, so that’s one thing that you don’t have to worry about,’” Baker said. “And when you’re ready to go home, hopefully, we’ll have all nice, healthy turtles ready to go home.”
Gibbons said that the animals were all very quiet during their stay and thanks to the dim lighting in the basement, they spent most of the time sleeping.
“They’ve just been kind of sleeping, resting, not being very active,” he said. “They weren’t pushing at edges, they weren’t climbing on each other, they were basically just sleeping and poking their heads out through the hay.”
On Saturday, with most of the fire danger passed, Gibbons made the call to head back home and a team of volunteers packed the animals into plastic tubs and onto trailers. The only real worry now is air quality, Gibbons said, adding that his wife was busy buying every HEPA filter she could find.
“So we’re going to put them into indoor facilities and use HEPA filters — it’s just a matter of managing air quality,” Gibbons said. “We had to make a decision — either we turned City Hall into a zoological facility, which they were willing to let us do, or we take them home. We’re so grateful that Alan could help us and the City of Atascadero could offer this space. It’s really a godsend.”