Gilcrease Sanctuary Fire Update

Updated news reports on the fire at the Gilcrease Sanctuary earlier this morning:


From the R-J:

Sandra Salinas was in a panic.

Salinas, executive director of the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary, awoke Friday morning to news that a fire was ripping through the facility she manages, near Durango Road and Grand Teton Drive in the northwest part of the valley.

As she arrived, tears streamed down her face as she rushed to a group of Las Vegas firefighters and sanctuary board members who huddled near the entrance. The blaze had just been extinguished, but firefighters were not yet allowing staff inside.

She looked to the group for an answer: What happened?

The news wasn't good.

"They're all dead," cried Salinas a short time later, her panic giving way to grief as staff members consoled her. "How could this happen, how could this happen?"

Official reports from Clark County Animal Control indicate that 151 birds and a guard dog perished in the fire, which was reported at 5:23 a.m. Staff reports estimate the figure to be higher, with between 250 and 350 birds believed to have died, including at least 60 exotic parrots. Some breeds, such as the cockatoos and the peacocks, were almost entirely wiped out, the staff said.

An additional 30 birds were taken to an animal hospital in North Las Vegas for treatment.

Fire investigators have not yet determined the cause, or given a damage estimate, a Clark County Fire Department spokesman said. Although the city's fire department battled the blaze, the investigation falls under Clark County's jurisdiction because the area is unicorporated land within city limits.

The sanctuary is home to about 1,500 abandoned animals, including parrots, cockatoos, peacocks and even a few ostriches, said Salinas. The facility also houses several types of barnyard animals, including goats, llamas, donkeys, and a mule deer fawn named Bambi.

Bambi survived the fire, as did the barnyard animals, said Salinas, but the birds in the path of the flames had no chance to escape.

"There was nowhere they could go, nowhere they could fly," she said. "They were just trapped."

Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski said the fire started at the northern edge of the facility and spread to the sanctuary's rehabilitation building, a wooden structure that houses about 30 ill or injured animals at a given time.

When firefighters arrived, the rehabilitation building was consumed with flames. One of the staff members was on the roof of another building with a water hose, but his methods weren't effective, Szymanski said.

Firefighters assumed a defensive position around the building and the fire was extinguished within 30 minutes, he said. The building, which burned quickly, had collapsed.

Salinas said the rehabilitation building housed many of the larger birds at the facility -- and the most exotic and rare, she said.

"These were people's pets that they couldn't take care of, and they sent them to us to be cared for," Salinas said. "They were rare, they were priceless."

Standing among the charred cages, Don White, a board member for the sanctuary, could only shake his head at the sad irony of the situation.

The sanctuary recently received a $4 million grant, $500,000 of which was to be used directly for renovations, the other $3.5 million to be invested into an endowment for future development, he said.

Architects had been hired to develop the sanctuary's cages into a modern aviary, which would have been more resistant to flames than wooden buildings that had stood for almost a century.

"We were working on a master plan for it (the renovations)," White said. "We were going to take a lot of this old stuff out of there. Now we'll have to tear everything out."

The sanctuary, which will be 40 years old this year, is a historical facility that has remained essentially unchanged since it was built in the 1920s by the Gilcrease family, aside from remodeling throughout the years.

Bill Gilcrease, now in his 90s, and his late brother, Ted, also developed a well-known fruit orchard near the nature sanctuary, both of which have survived decades of urban development.

Bill Gilcrease, who lives at the sanctuary, was sleeping when the fire started. He spent a majority of the morning wrapped in blankets in a van near his home.

He wasn't injured, but fled the home quickly and wasn't dressed for the cold weather, said White.

Although the fire department hasn't determined a cause, there was speculation among staff that heat-lamps to warm the birds overnight may have been knocked over by strong winds, causing a spark.

But that is just one theory, Salinas said, adding that "not knowing why" the fire started is a huge weight on her shoulders.

The sanctuary, which is nonprofit and offers daily admission of $5 and under, is not a private collection of birds, she said.

It's a piece of the community -- an educational landmark that 5,000 students visit every year to learn about nature, she said.

The birds weren't just birds to the staff, she said. They were like family.

"The only good news is that some of them are still alive," Salinas said. "That's what keeps us going."

From the Las Vegas Sun:

A fire damaged a building and killed about 150 birds Friday morning at the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary in the northwest Las Vegas Valley.

Las Vegas Fire & Rescue responded to the fire shortly before 5:30 a.m. at the sanctuary at 8103 Racel St., which is northeast of U.S. 95 and Durango. The fire destroyed the rehab building at the private nature preserve and sanctuary.

Clark County Fire Department spokesman Scott Allison said about 150 birds and a German Shepherd guard dog were killed. He said all of the animals killed in the fire were taken to Clark County Animal Control for cremation.

Thirty to 40 birds that were injured in the fire were taken to the North Las Vegas Animal Control facility for treatment, Allison said.

Firefighters said three people were sleeping inside another building at the sanctuary when one of them was awakened by popping sounds.

Fire department spokesman Tim Szymanski said someone at the sanctuary used a fire hose to try to battle flames, but the one-story wooden building was fully ablaze when firefighters arrived.

Investigators said one man suffered minor smoke inhalation injuries and was treated at the scene.

Firefighters were leaving the scene this morning as investigators tried to determine how the fire started.

Vernon Weir, director for the American Sanctuary Association, said the fire is one of the deadliest involving animals he has seen in the last 10 years.

The preserve is a nonprofit sanctuary, education center and rescue operation for animals including tortoises and horses. It has housed large birds including ostriches and emus, along with smaller species like finches, parakeets and parrots.

The fire is being investigated by the Clark County Fire Department.