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Brenda Burke

Brenda Burke and her dog Hanzel.

The Napa County wildfires burned out Brenda Burke’s home – but not her sense of mission.

A torrent of flame on a windswept October night forced Burke to hurry from her home east of Napa, then reduced the rented house to an ash-strewn ruin. What remained, however, was her determination to help get pets and livestock out of danger and into shelter while infernos closed in on three sides of the valley, consuming tens of thousands of acres.

A Napa-area resident for more than two decades, Burke is a community outreach manager for Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch, a nonprofit rescue program devoted to creating a no-kill sanctuary in the county. In the days after the Atlas Fire, she put the experience gained through that work to use, teaming with other local animal lovers to help many of the county’s furry denizens find refuge.

Burke was at her rented home on Mount George Avenue on Oct. 8 when she got a surprise 10 p.m. phone call from a friend in Lake Tahoe who already had heard news about the outbreak of fires in the North Bay. Nothing unusual was visible outside the house, but another, much more urgent call came in an hour later.

“A friend at the Silverado resort said, ‘You have a huge fire coming your way – grab your dog and get out now,’” Burke recalled last month. “So I grabbed my dog and my laptop and drove off.”

Burke joined a handful of other Mount George residents to watch the flames from a distance until 2 a.m., then headed to her mother’s home in the city before waking at 6 the next morning, intending to go home for a shower.

“I was on my way in when I saw my door was on fire,” she said. “I ran up my driveway, saw my door on fire, another house on fire, and I ran back until 3 in the afternoon when I came back and there was nothing left. It was all ash by then.”

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Sharing the Spirit

Meanwhile, hundreds more homes in the county were in flames, and evacuation orders would force hundreds more to clear out. Emergency shelters opened in Napa and American Canyon, but Burke scrambled to help other animal welfare workers and volunteers create refuges for evacuees of the four-footed persuasion as well.

Burke and other helpers set up sanctuary areas for evacuees bringing pets to CrossWalk Community Church and Napa Valley College. Calls to Tractor Supply and Wilson’s Feed produced donations of animal feed, fencing and other supplies – often delivered to other animal groups by Burke herself – and Facebook postings recruited donors to contribute still more, to aid both household pets and the large animals taken to the Solano County Fairgrounds farther south.

“We all kicked into gear, doing what needed to be done,” she said. “We were getting calls from people who needed help or who had found animals – hundreds of calls, nonstop. … We were going 16, 18 hours a day. We were going as long as we needed to go, doing what needed to be done.”

Helping to keep pets and owners together in the depths of disaster is a point of particular pride for Burke, who compared separating them to “taking their kids away.”

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“It’s in the people’s best interest, too,” she declared “For many of them, their animals are their life and it’s therapeutic to them.

As firefighters slowly battled back the blazes, her volunteering almost caused her own losses to fade into the background, at least until the immediate danger had finally passed.

“It was a distraction. It was something in my heart; I didn’t think twice about it,” she remembered. “The adrenalin kicks in and you know there’s a need out there. You don’t think about the hours you’ve put in until you’re asked. It feels good to be able to protect life, whether it’s human or animal, because it’s one and the same.”

Still, reality was setting in. Across Napa County, nearly 600 other homes besides Burke’s had been lost to the fires, tightening an already skimpy housing supply. But in the following weeks, the same willingness she had shown to help a neighbor rebounded to her in turn.

Burke was able to rent a Napa apartment from a landlord whose dogs the new tenant had helped evacuate during the fires. Donations of clothes, kitchenware and gift cards flowed in from friends and merchants; the Napa Whole Foods Market offered her a complete Thanksgiving dinner for herself and a dozen others.

The assistance that had flowed both from and to her, she decided, had reaffirmed her faith in her hometown.

“I feel blessed,” said Burke. “It’s a reminder of how important relationships are, how important it is to help each other all the time – because you never know when you’ll need help yourself. This brought out the giving spirit of the community, and I feel so blessed to be in Napa.”

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.