As embers fell and flames grew, the question of “what to take” often came down to a four-legged bundle. But the Valley Fire in California’s rural Lake County left many with just minutes to escape as it sped through parched brush in record time.
“The community had to leave so fast that hundreds of animals were left behind,” says Bill Davidson, director of Lake County Animal Care and Control.
Countless dogs that managed to stay with their people soon joined cats, goats, horses and more in evacuation centers crammed with cots and crates. One local shelter had to face its own tough choices; whether to euthanize existing animals to make way for the incoming. (Luckily, these two groups stepped in).
In South Lake County, where the 73,700-acre blaze began, among the worst in California’s history, the roads out are windy and narrow, through rock-strewn mountains and forests, with yawning drops at every bend. In 2011, a group of horse owners along with Davidson formed the Lake Evacuation and Animal Protection team (LEAP) to help prepare for the inevitable, catastrophic fire.
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The volunteer group has trained to enter the fire area and either impound or shelter in place. The vast majority of city and county animal control agencies lack the training, equipment, or support from local fire agencies to do the work, Davidson says.
In recent days, some people ventured back into smoldering fire zones, escorted by sheriff’s deputies and CHP officers for a 15-minute check on the animals they’d left behind. Some would find their homes; others would not.
“Everyone is calling to have us check on their animals,” says Davidson. “The list is endless.” With the enormity of the crisis, he called in the ASPCA. Everyone wants to help, he says, but LEAP only uses those with fire training and personal protection equipment. The fire zone, where animals still wander, is filled with dangers. “Many things are actively burning, trees are falling, power lines are down, and fire crews are running around to trouble spots.” On Sunday, the ASPCA arrived with a 30-foot trailer. The four field rescuers and three shelter helpers are expected to stay through Sunday.
“We brief each morning and then they are gone for most of the day, not returning to well after midnight so far,” Davidson says.
The field rescue is uplifting at times, heartbreaking at others.
“As long as the property was spared, most dogs have done well,” he says. “Our goal has been to shelter in place as many as possible, providing food and water for the absent owner, then moving on to the next address.” If they survived the initial blast, most are far more comfortable and easily managed staying at home.
But over 1,000 structures were likely destroyed, “pretty much a total loss, including anything left inside,” he says. “The injured animals have been trickling in, all being sent for medical attention.”
How many dogs are missing? Davidson is sure there are hundreds that escaped yards or were set loose by their owners. “Social media has been full of pictures of animals set free by their owners before leaving. We have impounded about a dozen dogs just wandering around as we check on addresses.”
Lake County’s animal shelter now brims with almost 200 animals whose lives were upturned by fire…again.
In August, the county was struck by another roaring inferno; the Rocky fire, nearly as large but in a less populated area. Less than two weeks later the Jerusalem fire ignited. Help arrived from Chico-based North Valley Animal Disaster Group, but the run of disasters has left shelters reeling. And with some 600 homes lost, many people and pets are homeless.
“We survived the Rocky and Jerusalem fires, but it pretty much depleted our resources, both physically and mentally,” Davidson says.
“Then this came.”