As the Valley Fire tore through Lake County, flocks of volunteers came to the aid of its residents – including those of the four-legged persuasion.
While aid workers delivered food and clothing to evacuees sheltered in Calistoga and Kelseyville, others lent their efforts to numerous dogs and cats driven from their owners’ homes, as well as horses, livestock and fowl trapped by the fast-moving inferno that erupted Sept. 12 and spread to more than 76,000 acres.
Volunteer animal rescuers like Tracee Beebe, founder of Sunrise Horse Rescue in St. Helena, relied on social media, checking Facebook for posts from evacuated animal owners who had been forced to leave their pets and livestock behind. One post told of a herd of horses that had been turned loose on Hartmann Road in Hidden Valley Lake. By the time a team of volunteers reached the address, the horses had been rescued, but it turned out to be far from a wasted trip.
“On the way, we just kept finding animal after animal that needed us,” Beebe said. “It was almost divine intervention, because I don’t know if we would have gone to that road, which turned out to have a huge animal population, had it not been for that notice (on Facebook).”
“Because of that, we saved a lot of lives,” Beebe said, from cats and dogs to roosters, goats and donkeys.
One horse had tried to jump over a fence and been impaled by a fence post, and wouldn’t have survived if help hadn’t arrived. Within 15 minutes of Beebe finding the horse, it was being cared for by Claudia Sonder, a veterinarian working with Napa Valley Equine. It’s expected to make a full recovery.
Dozens of volunteers helped care for animals affected by the fire. Wine Country Animal Lovers and Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch collected pet food donations that were passed on to the main evacuation camp, at the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga. WCAL, Jameson, Petaluma Animal Services and the Sonoma Humane Society formed an impromptu consortium called Valley Fire Animal Coalition to coordinate their efforts.
Donations poured in, filling 750 Wines in St. Helena (a business operated by the Jameson ranch’s director, Monica Stevens) and a warehouse in Napa. “We took about 15 truckloads of food and supplies up to Lake County,” said WCAL’s Pam Ingalls.
A mobile pet clinic at the fairgrounds in Calistoga offered veterinarian care, vaccinations, microchipping, and a few spaying and neutering procedures.
In the days after the fire began, animals were taken to Middletown Animal Hospital, given veterinary care if needed, then taken to temporary shelter until their owners were ready to care for them again.
On Sunday, as Lake County began reopening communities sealed off during the fire, Napa Humane staff headed north to the county’s animal shelter in Lakeport, bringing the group’s mobile pet adoption van to serve as extra infirmary space for injured cats. The society also raised several thousand dollars in veterinary medicine and vaccine on behalf of Lake County Animal Care & Control, said Jane Albert, executive director of Napa Humane.
“It’s like Noah’s ark up there: pigs, horses, ponies, dogs, cats, a turtle,” said Richard Bachman, Napa Humane’s lead veterinarian, who estimated the Lakeport shelter held more than 200 animals at its peak occupancy last week and still housed about 120 pets on Wednesday.
“Most of the fire-related injuries I saw were cats that found refuge from a fast-moving fire but when they came out of their safe haven, they encountered embers. We saw a lot of paw burns and ear burns. You might have survived the fire, but when you left your safe space, you were walking through a hellhole.”
The speed of the Valley Fire’s expansion forced many into snap decisions about what to save and what to leave behind – an especially crushing choice for the owners of horses and other large animals. At a resort and equestrian center south of Lake Berryessa, the owners opened their doors within hours of the blaze’s outbreak.
“We were on the phone at 12:30 the first night (Sunday, Sept. 13) trying to organize our facility,” said Brad Miracle, who manages R-Ranch at the Lake on Capell Valley Road. “Within eight hours the first donations started rolling in, and within a few more hours we had a full-fledged evacuation facility.”
Using paddocks normally rented to visitors, R-Ranch organized a fleet of more than a dozen trailers to bring in 31 horses from Pope Valley, which also was evacuated during the wildfire.
Through an outreach effort to friends, social media and San Francisco TV stations, the resort recruited veterinarians to care for livestock, pets and fowl, and received two tractor-trailer shipments of hay, according to Miracle. R-Ranch also sheltered 140 evacuees, most of whom were not animal owners, he said.
“What I’ve taken from this experience is, we have an amazing community of people willing to donate whatever it takes in a time of need,” said Miracle.
All of R-Ranch’s equine guests had been reclaimed by their owners by late last week, although the resort was still hosting about 35 people from Cobb, which was closest to the Valley Fire’s origin and remains off limits.
Sunrise Horse Rescue took in 17 horses and two goats. Many of the horses have gone home already, but a few might have to spend the rest of their lives at Sunrise, which is a “no-kill” forever home for its horses.
“The outpouring of support from the community has been heartwarming and tremendous,” said Jeff Hoelsken, Sunrise’s executive director. Hundreds of donors from all over Northern California have offered volunteer time, food, trailers, horse care supplies and monetary donations.
Hoelsken said cash donations are always the most helpful, and additional volunteers and supplies will be needed in the long term to support the increased population.
“This is going to be an ongoing, long-term effort,” he said.
Housing pets and livestock will remain an issue in the coming weeks and months, largely because of the hundreds of homes destroyed by the Valley Fire, said Bachman, the Napa Humane veterinarian working in Lake County. Animal welfare workers are discussing partnerships with rescue groups to provide temporary shelter, and are fielding offers from residents in undamaged areas of Lake County to take in some animals, he said.
On Tuesday, “we had 24 reunifications of animals with people, but do they have a house to go back to?” said Bachman. “We’re still holding animals here that have been identified, but have no place to go.”