Humans weren’t the only ones to seek shelter in San Luis Obispo County from the fires ravaging Southern California; a small army of Ojai turtles and tortoises were crashing in the basement of Atascadero City Hall since Tuesday.
When the Thomas Fire threatened to move into the Ojai Valley, Paul Gibbons of the Turtle Conservancy knew he had to get his reptiles, hundreds of turtles and tortoises including several rare and endangered species, to safety. It was just a matter of deciding where to go.
He watched as the Thomas Fire crept gradually north, and realized he would have to move them far from the blaze, which has ravaged vast swaths of northern Ventura County, forcing an estimated 87,000 people to evacuate since Monday.
“I wanted to take them to a place where, if we needed to stay, we could just stay,” he said.
A look at the map told him Atascadero was an ideal location — it was well beyond the likely reach of the fire, but close enough to make it in a day trip. Best of all, it was home to the Charles Paddock Zoo, run by Gibbons’ associate, Alan Baker.
The zoo had a ready supply of hay, heat lamps and other necessities. It also has its own turtles to look after, and bringing in new ones raised space and quarantine concerns. Baker said he had another idea of where to stash the reptiles.
“I called the city manager and said, ‘Hey, can I have the basement of city hall?’ ” he said.
City Manager Rachelle Rickard readily complied, and the animals were discretely dropped off Tuesday night. Baker said the goal was to avoid drawing unwanted attention to the turtles and tortoises.
“City Hall was open and running. We really tried to keep a low profile,” he said.
Gibbons said the basement was a surprisingly good temporary habitat for the rescued animals.
“It’s quiet. It’s at the low end of their temperature range,” he said. “They were quiet and relaxed.”
Baker said the steady temperature and dim light meant the animals were never roused into an active state.
Days went by, with Baker, Gibbons and others keeping an eye on the animals during the day and providing for their needs, while they spent the night locked up. Eventually, Gibbons said it was time to make another decision.
“We had a choice. Either create a zoological facility in city hall, or take them home,” he said.
More than a dozen zoo and conservancy staffers, biologists, volunteers and family members gathered Saturday morning to begin the process of packing up the turtles and tortoises — including ploughshares tortoises, baby snake-necked turtles, radiated tortoises, golden coin turtles and, biggest of all, a 50-year-old 400-pound Galapagos tortoise — to take them home.
Totes full of tortoises covered the floor of city hall’s basement Saturday, stuffed with hay and ample breathing room for the ride back to Ojai.
Gibbons said that the conservancy was spared from the fires and fully intact, besides needing a HEPA filter to clean up the air quality.
“We just got lucky,” he said.
Gibbons said he was grateful to the Charles Paddock Zoo and the City of Atascadero for providing shelter to the turtles and tortoises.
Baker credited the American Zoological Association, of which the Charles Paddock Zoo is a member. He said his zoo routinely stays in touch with facilities in disaster-afflicted areas, offering whatever aid they can.
“We’re all a family. We all know each other, and we’re always here no matter what,” Baker said.