By Kirk Johnson, The New York Times, September 15, 2015
|A horse with singed mane and whiskers from wildfire in Middletown, California, on Tuesday. Photo: Talia Herman for the New York Times.|
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. — When the Valley Fire blew up in this rural area 100 miles north of San Francisco last weekend, many residents fled with only the clothes they were wearing. The suddenness of the fire’s surge — half an hour from warning to life-threatening conflagration in many parts of Lake County — sent people scattering, their homes undefended and possessions left to fate or luck.
And in a drought-parched state, that luck was bad. The blaze, 30 percent contained after consuming 67,200 acres, has killed one person and injured four others, with 585 homes destroyed and the state of hundreds more uncertain, according to state fire officials. More than 7,600 structures remained threatened. Financial and personal losses, still uncounted, will be unquestionably staggering.
Many vineyard and farmworkers were also displaced by the damage to housing, raising questions about whether they will stay around through what could be a long economic recovery. The effect on fruit trees that often burn more readily than water-saturated grape vines — Lake County is at the heart of California’s pear-growing region — remains uncertain as well.
Prevailing winds have so far mostly spared grape harvests south of the fires, in Napa County, though growers there say they are not out of danger.
But the rural nature of this part of California added another pain to the equation for thousands of evacuated residents: the animals that people had to leave behind. Those animals included pets but also hundreds of horses for breeding or show, goats and sheep that are financially important in a farming economy.
Crews of volunteers and veterinarians, aided by animal control officers on loan from nearby counties — and besieged by evacuated residents who have bombarded animal shelters with anguished questions and pleas — have begun an arduous task of triage and organization. Even as the fire continues to rage and evacuees try to find out if they still have homes, volunteers are rescuing and healing animals, dispatching crews with food and water to aid stranded animals and then reconnecting them with their owners.
Bob Young, who lives near Hidden Valley Lake, had time, and a trailer big enough, to take all of his horses but two. “That was very hard,” he said. On Tuesday, he was back and felt lucky, he said, that both horses had survived, though with injuries.
Horses have been found wandering down the highway, dazed disaster survivors with cuts and scrapes from the fences they broke through or jumped. Cats, perhaps more prone to panic, were seen dashing into burning homes, and certain death. A dog apparently sheltered her two 8-week-old pups, and all three survived, though the mother had smoke inhalation injuries. Pets from bearded dragons to cockatoos have been brought in.
Some of the survivor stories that animal rescue workers are telling hint at luck or fate, or maybe some animal intelligence.
On Monday, for example, volunteers stumbled on a kind of sanctuary: Five horses, two donkeys and seven goats had found shelter in a tiny depression of earth about 20 feet wide by 50 feet long as fire burned everything around them. Corrals were melted. A school bus was gutted nearby. But the animals, hunkered down in the middle of the inferno in the one place that did not burn, were barely scathed.
“They’re herd animals; they followed each other in there,” said Milt Fletcher, a volunteer from nearby Yolo County, shaking his head as he told the story.
Others were less fortunate.
One wandering horse was struck by a vehicle and killed, and at least three died of smoke or fire in a pasture they could not escape. A badly burned goat was euthanized at the animal hospital, as was at least one cow. Burned kittens were evacuated to a bigger hospital at the University of California, Davis, where students were volunteering to help with treatment.
“There’s a cow right in there we found yesterday,” said John Madigan, a professor of epidemiology at the university’s veterinary school who was volunteering here. He slowed his pickup truck in front of a gutted, charred barn. Animals that were confined there died, he said, while those that were not confined survived.
Professor Madigan, who trains students in emergency animal rescue, said some places prepared better than others for the nonhuman implications of disaster. Texas A & M University, for example, has an extensive animal rescue training program, he said, because of hurricane threats. Southern California has also faced far more fire than these northern woods, and residents there know that evacuation plans should include animals. But the roaring pace of the blaze here set a clock, he said, that no one could keep up with.
“When you have something that explodes in the middle of the night and people don’t have a chance to respond, this is what you’re ended up with: The owners have left, and the animals are left behind,” Professor Madigan said. “There’s probably 400 unburned houses here that could have animals in them, and there’s no one to care for them.”
At Middletown Animal Hospital, workers are preparing identification sheets for each animal found. Facebook pages will be set up, Teresa Axthelm, the hospital’s practice manager, said, “when the chaos has lifted a bit.”
Water is an urgent need, said Jeffrey J. Smith, the hospital’s owner. Many homes and farms depend on wells, and the power failures that are widespread because of downed electrical lines have crippled the ability to pump water. As a result, volunteers have been hauling out buckets from swimming pools, the water still hot from the flames.