Children’s Nature Retreat Reopens After Valley Fire Evacuations

ALPINE, CA — An Alpine-based animal sanctuary already impacted by the coronavirus pandemic reopened to the public Thursday after evacuating more than 100 animals due to the devastating Valley Fire in eastern San Diego County.

The Children’s Nature Retreat, which is dedicated to enriching the lives of children and their families, reopened for reservations only.

The 20-acre animal sanctuary is home to 22 different species and 58 distinct breeds of livestock and exotic animals. The domesticated and exotic animals at the nonprofit have been either rescued or adopted from previous owners who could no longer care for them.

“It was the first time we were directly affected by a wildfire,” said Agnes Barrelet, executive director of Children’s Nature Retreat. “It started less than a mile from the Retreat. We thought we would not have to evacuate until the wind turned.”

The Valley Fire sparked amid a sweltering heat wave Sept. 5 off Japatul and Carveacre roads in Japatul Valley, southeast of Alpine.

The fire had scorched 17,093 acres and remained 95 percent contained as of Wednesday. The blaze destroyed 30 residences and 31 outbuildings, damaged 11 other structures and left three firefighters injured.

With the help of the San Diego Humane Society and volunteers with horse trailers and space to welcome animals, about 120 of the 140 animals were evacuated from the Children’s Nature Retreat. The animals were housed and cared for by individual ranches out of harm’s way.

“We were so focused on protecting our animals and sending them with the right people to the right destination, we had no time to get emotional,” Barrelet said.

“We all had a goal and we all did it together. Volunteers, staff, the Humane Society, ranches came together. It was beautiful and terrifying at the same time.”

Barrelet left the animal sanctuary for only one night to find a solution for her daughter and their pets. She returned the next morning with the Humane Society to care for the big and exotic animals that remained on site.

The fire came within a mile of the Children’s Nature Retreat but ultimately spared the animal sanctuary. The animals started to return home the Friday following the evacuation order, Barrelet said.

“It took us only a few hours to evacuate over 100 animals, but a few days to get them back,” Barrelet said.

“Thankfully, they all returned, but not without loosing four of our sweet creatures due to the stress of the fire, and not without injuries or illnesses. We are heartbroken. However, we are survivors.”

Children’s Nature Retreat had already taken a financial hit this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The animal sanctuary was forced to shut down for more than two months and cancel fundraising events. The nonprofit received individual donations and obtained loans, but it was not enough to cover all the expenses, Barrelet said.

“The community helped us survive and we are so grateful,” she said. “We were ramping up revenues when the fire forced us to close again for three weeks. It feels like when I finally think we are going to be OK, we drown again.”

Reservations are required and capacity is limited to 100 guests to allow for social distancing. Face masks are also required at check-in or within 6 feet of another party.

“More and more people are discovering the Retreat,” Barrelet said. “The word of mouth is slowly spreading. People enjoy being in nature, close to animals, in a calm environment.”

Memberships and guided tours are available. The nonprofit has launched a five-week program for home school pods and an eight-week virtual program for schools.

Children’s Nature Retreat is also accepting donations to help recover from the wildfire and pandemic-related closures.

“The Retreat cannot operate only with admission sales,” Barrelet said. “We need recurrent monthly donations in order to continue to develop our programs, build shelters and new enclosures, and maintain the high-level of care.”

This article originally appeared on the Santee Patch

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