On October 8, 2017, the most destructive wildfire in California history broke out in the northern part of the state, incinerating over 8,000 structures and nearly 200,000 acres across several counties.
Forty-three people lost their lives, including Valerie Lynn Evans, known as the “Horse Lady.” In addition to horses, she cared for goats, dogs and a mule neighbors would sometimes encounter when Valerie went on morning walks.
Scores of domesticated and wild animals were displaced or succumbed to the fires. While there is no official tally on how many animals were lost, 10 days after the fires broke out, Time reported that 3,000 animals were displaced in Napa and Sonoma counties.
Rescues and Adoptions
Many local rescues took in displaced animals, including, among others:
On the Sonoma/Napa County Facebook page, pictures of missing animals were posted almost daily. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa became a refuge for farm animals from the surrounding wine country.
Hopalong & Second Chance in Oakland, California, is currently seeking people who want to adopt an animal rescued from the fires.
A Survivor’s Story
Dr. Stephen Seager, Santa Rosa native and adopter of 4 dogs and 2 cats, talked about surviving the Tubbs Fire and personal stories of what his neighbors endured.
Petful: How long have you lived in Santa Rosa? Would you describe it as a close-knit community?
Dr. Seager: I have lived in Santa Rosa for 7 years. It is an extremely diverse yet close-knit community. Everyone has a strong loyalty to Santa Rosa, Sonoma County and Northern California in general.
Petful: What would people from outside the area be most surprised to learn about Santa Rosa?
Dr. Seager: Santa Rosa is the largest city between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. It’s the home of Luther Burbank, Charles Shultz (of Peanuts fame) and many famous wineries.
Petful: Where were you when the fires broke out?
Dr. Seager: I was playing badminton at the local Boys and Girls Club. I run a regular Sunday evening game. Driving home, I noticed how unusually strong the winds were. Oddly, near my home I passed a house fully engulfed in flames. At 10:30 p.m., I made the 911 call.
Petful: Once you realized the severity of the situation, what was the very first “autopilot” action that kicked into gear? What were you focused on salvaging from your home?
Dr. Seager: I actually went to bed. I was home with my son. My wife was out of town.
My wife called early Monday morning to say we should evacuate as the national news was now covering the fire and had mentioned our neighborhood. I quickly ran out to the driveway and saw a 30-foot wall of flames topped by a 100-foot wall of black smoke about 3 blocks from our house. I ran in and got my son and said take 1 thing. He grabbed his backpack. We put the dogs in the car and headed back to look for our 2 Maine Coon cats, Linus and Lucy (Peanuts again).
Sensing trouble, the cats had somehow climbed inside my son’s large, solid wooden bed stand. Without thinking — and I have no idea how — I tore apart my son’s bedstead with my bare hands, grabbed one startled cat in each hand and ran for the door. We drove directly past that wall of flame and smoke on the way out of our neighborhood.
Petful: As a psychiatrist, you have expertise in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the extraordinary ways people are equipped to withstand tragedy. You were at ground zero during the worst wildfire in California’s history. Describe what it was like experiencing that event as a professional who’s accustomed to guiding others through disaster.
Dr. Seager: I wasn’t a professional during that time. I was a dad, a husband and pet owner. I did my best to be certain everyone was safely away. For a week, we took fire refugees into our home (and their pets), so there wasn’t much time to think about yourself.
Petful: You have 4 dogs and 2 cats that you were able to get to safety. How are they doing?
Dr. Seager: Everyone is doing well. The move was a bit traumatic — not eating, cat hiding for a day or 2, and dogs barking more — but thing have pretty much settled back to normal now.
Petful: Many residents in your area are pet caretakers. Describe some of the incidents you heard about with people trying to rescue their animals.
Dr. Seager: There were thousands of stories about people and their pets during the fires; 7,000 homes were lost. Most pets were evacuated safely.
Unfortunately, a number of pets perished as people literally had to run for their lives. There were stories of people going back to the rubble of their homes and finding their dog or cat safe and sound. (The fires were hot enough to melt metal wheel rims on cars). Very unfortunately, at least 2 people were consumed by the flames when they went back to save their pets.
We took in a number of fire refugees and their pets, including a woman who brought 3 dogs. In Santa Rosa, there is Safari West, a wild animal park that simulates the plains of Africa with giraffes, lions, etc. Safari West was directly in the path of the flames. The owner had to make an immediate decision: Do I save my animals or my house and buildings? As your readers will be glad to hear, he said, “I saved the animals, of course.”
He lost his home and business. The Safari West menagerie was trucked to the temporary shelter at the county fairgrounds. It was odd to drive by and see 10,000 people in tents and, above them, the heads of 6 giraffes.
Petful: What advice would you give people who are caring for traumatized animals?
Dr. Seager: We tried to keep things as normal as possible. We did, however, give the dogs (and the cats liked it too) extra doses of cooked chicken treats, their favorite.
This article was written by Nikki Forston. Nikki is a freelance writer/documentary film producer based in Philadelphia. A longtime proponent of animal rights, she’s also an advocate in the mental illness community. In partnership with a forensic psychiatrist, she’s participating in a new initiative that aims to improve treatment parameters for individuals diagnosed with severe mental illness.
Dr. Stephen Seager is a bestselling author and producer of Roadmap and Shattered Families: The Collapse of America’s Mental Health System. He is working tirelessly to change laws regarding mental illness in his state. His latest project, Urban Inferno, is a documentary about the disaster, stories of heroism and the recovery process the residents of Sonoma County are still going through.