Amid all the tragedy, US fire victims still fight to save their pets
Makeshift shelters fill up as pet owners struggle to care for them and put their shattered lives back together
Steve Cox pets and cuddles Ernie, his 10-year-old English bulldog, before leaving him at a shelter. Cox lost his home in California’s devastating wildfires, and now they have to part.
“Don’t you worry, Ernie. I am not gonna let you down. We’ll come back for you,” Cox whispers.
He has been staying at a hotel but it doesn’t take pets. For a week Cox tried to take care of Ernie in the back of his pick-up truck.
But now, as Cox tries to get his life back on track, he thinks Ernie would get better care at one of three animal shelters in northern California’s Paradise area where the so-called Camp Fire has claimed 76 lives and left more than 1,000 unaccounted for.
In this rural area, which had many horses, one shelter is for large animals. Then there are two small facilities where helpers are working with dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, turtles and even swans.
Ernie is walking with a bit of trouble after an operation on an abscess in one of his front legs. Cox says the dog is lazy, though, so he thinks Ernie will adapt quickly to the separation by sleeping a lot.
The main shelter was set up in the city of Chico’s airport, near Paradise, where rescue and firefighting operations have been based.
Animals saved by firefighters are dropped off there to be cared for.
One woman arrives desperate, her hands trembling. She pulls out an envelope of photos of her cats and dogs.
“Please, let me in and see. I might find them,” she begs in a tearful voice.
‘They are family’
When the fire began to threaten Paradise, Cox was headed home from the doctor with his wife. He could have stopped but instead kept going, to rescue Ernie and two other smaller dogs he has.
“They are family. I couldn’t just leave them. We had 10 minutes to leave,” he recalls.
Cox, who lived there since 1973, said he lost two houses, and many pieces of furniture that his father had left him, in the blaze which virtually wiped the community from the map.
“I have a big question mark above my head. I don’t know what I’ll do,” he says, his face showing exhaustion.
The animal shelters are working with dozens of volunteers responsible for feeding, caring for and walking the animals.
They also have volunteer veterinary technicians, including Marshall Riddle, who are responsible for treating them.
Many animals arrived at the shelters injured and burned.
“It’s never easy, but we have to make sure every animal is safe,” he says.
The most worrying cases were sent to specialised clinics.
Although these are not the first shelters of their kind in the state regularly ravaged by wildfires, the blazes have never been so deadly.
“Butte County is always on fire,” said Karen Falconer of the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, which runs another of the shelters in an old hospital in the town of Oroville.
There are about 430 animals, separated into zones. The dog section is barking noisily but the cat zone is quieter.
“We’ll take care of them as long as necessary,” Falconer said.
For Cox the separation was just starting, while others were already rejoicing in reunion.
Little Eva’s face lit up when her six-month-old kitten Luke Skywalker (named for the Star Wars character) was handed over to her and her parents, Robert and Brittany Pieper.
They had already searched in another shelter for their pet African tortoise named James Peterson.
The fire destroyed their house in Magalia, just outside Paradise.
Now, after days in a shelter and then a hotel, they were able to rent a flat where they could be with their pets and try to start over the life the wildfires had burnt beyond recognition.