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Butte, Valley fire victims search for animals left, lost during blazes

Nehemiah White, right, and Selena Craine of Lake County Animal Care and Control lead a pony and quarter horse found roaming Thursday in Anderson Springs. They were assisted by a Cal Fire crew from Riverside. The Valley fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County has continued to burn since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort.
Nehemiah White, right, and Selena Craine of Lake County Animal Care and Control lead a pony and quarter horse found roaming Thursday in Anderson Springs. They were assisted by a Cal Fire crew from Riverside. The Valley fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County has continued to burn since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Ashley Eve and her family had just minutes to load their eight goats and one dog before racing down the hill to escape the fast moving Valley fire, leaving behind four horses in the hopes they would somehow find sanctuary amid the flames.

Eve opened the gates for the horses to run free on the 40-acre pasture, but they “kept circling around the field in a panic because of all the smoke and noise,” said Eve, 20, who lives on a 200-acre Middletown ranch with her parents, Craig and Linda.

On Wednesday, the worst was confirmed. Three of the horses – Matador, Ember and Cela – were so badly burned they had to be put down immediately, Eve said. A fourth horse was still missing Thursday. The family, which fled to Calistoga, lost their home, one of at least 585 residences destroyed in the blaze. The fire burned 73,700 acres and was 35 percent contained Thursday. Three people have died.

The horses likely were disoriented, said Eve. “The flames were raining from the sky,” she said.

As some return to homes still standing and others shift through the rubble for personal belongings, victims of the Valley and Butte fires also are searching for dozens of missing animals that survived the inferno – including chickens and goats spotted running wild on roads.

On Facebook, residents set up pages to post pictures of their lost pets. Some had spray-painted phone numbers on horses before letting them run free.

An army of veterinarian volunteers have fanned out to treat the wounded and feed the starving animals in both areas.

“We are using water from swimming pools,” to rehydrate some of the larger animals, said Dr. Claudia Sonders, a Napa veterinarian and director for the center of equine health at UC Davis, who is volunteering at the Valley fire site. The animals are large enough that any chlorine risk is negligible, she said.

The animals’ injuries have included cuts, puncture wounds and superficial burns, Sonders said.

There was apparently no formula for survival.

For the most part, Sonders said, “Any animal that had the ability to run away was able to get to safety.”

The animals that were evacuated safely waited out the fires with their owners.

At the Napa County Fairgrounds in Calistoga, aid workers fed evacuees while animal groups fed their pets. Pam Ingalls, president of the nonprofit Wine Country Animal Lovers, said the camp is hosting about 400 animals that were brought to the fairgrounds by their owners.

“We’ve got dogs, cats, horses, livestock, chickens, rabbits,” Ingalls said. “Every type of animal you can imagine is out here.”

Volunteers are using the fire as an opportunity to educate pet owners and offer preventive microchips, spay and neuter services.

“The community has been amazing,” Ingalls said, noting the vast donations of pet food.

In Calaveras County, the epicenter of the Butte fire, Lorna Sweeney, 68, was cleaning up her mobile home Thursday, which was spared from the flames. The fire consumed 252 homes and 70,760 acres as of Thursday, when it was 49 percent contained. Two people have died.

The 18-acre property is perched on top of a hill overlooking the valley, off Highway 26.

“I’ve thanked God many, many times,” Sweeney said, smoking a cigarette.

Sweeney, who returned to her home Thursday, left her feral cat, Midnight, to fend for himself because “it would be impossible to get him into a cage,” she said.

Midnight, a cat with long claws and an expert mouse hunter, rode out the blaze sleeping under the mobile home. The heavy smoke apparently didn’t affect him.

“He’s a survivor,” Sweeney said.

Richard Chang: 916-321-1018, @RichardYChang

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