Hundreds of homes are lost, but adding to the pain and fear are the farm animals left behind, killed or injured in these rural areas. Volunteers, veterinarians and animal shelters are rushing to rescue and treat all the animals they can find.
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, still only 15 percent contained after consuming more than 67,000 acres, has killed one person and injured four others so far, with 585 homes destroyed and hundreds more that already may be but have not yet been found or recorded, according to state fire officials. About 9,000 structures remain threatened. Financial and personal losses, still uncounted, will be unquestionably staggering.
Three major wildfires continued to burn out of control Tuesday. Two hundred miles to the east, in Sierra foothill Gold Country, the Butte fire has scorched through 71,660 acres and was 37 percent contained Tuesday morning. To the south, the Rough fire burning in the Sequoia National Forest was reported to be 40 percent contained, but it already has devoured 211 square miles and filled the San Joaquin Valley with stifling smoke.
In hilly and rural Lake County, a short drive north of the state’s storied wine country, the ferocity and breakaway speed of the Valley fire stunned veteran firefighters, hampered strategic planning and gave rise to worries that it could be a harbinger of an extended, and unpredictable, fire season in the months ahead.
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Vineyard owners, many of whom were in mid-harvest when the Valley fire struck, have begun adding up the effects of heat and smoke, which can damage grape quality even if the vines survive. Farm equipment and hundreds of outbuildings and barns lay in ruins, with still-smoking embers mixing in places with the smells of oil and melted machinery.
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, in the urgency of evacuation, people were forced to leave behind. Those animals included pets like cats and dogs, but also hundreds of horses for breeding or show, and goats and sheep, all of which are financially important in a farming-centered economy.
Crews of volunteers and veterinarians, aided by animal-control officers 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.
Scores of people in Lake County were escorted back to their homes Tuesday to check on pets and farm animals. They were allowed to remain for 15 minutes to feed and water the animals.
Even as the fire continues to rage and evacuees try to find out if they still have homes, volunteers are out finding and treating 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 female dog apparently sheltered her two eight-week-old pups, and all three survived, though she 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, a volunteer team stumbled on a kind of sanctuary: five horses, two donkeys and seven goats that had all found shelter together in a tiny depression of earth about 20 feet wide by 50 feet long as fire burned everything around them to the ground. 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, with no serious burn injuries and only a few scratches and scrapes.
“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.
Other animals 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.
Rancher Lisa Comstock said she and her three dogs survived the raging fire in rural Middletown by jumping into a water trough as flames neared her home.
Comstock was also able to keep her horses nearby as the fire burned around them.
“The flames were coming over that mountain and surrounding this place like there was no tomorrow,” she said. “I jumped in the water trough with all the dogs, and the horses came up around. Thank God they just stayed here.”
At one point she was sure she wasn’t going to make it but talking to her animals helped keep her and the animals calm.
“If this is how I go, I’m not leaving these animals. That’s all I could think of,” she said.
At Middletown Animal Hospital, workers are preparing identification sheets for each animal found, with a photograph and a description of where the animal was found and what treatment was administered. 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 widespread power failures because of downed electrical lines have crippled the ability to pump water. Volunteers have been hauling out buckets from swimming pools, the water still hot from the flames.