California

When wildfires strike, animals get left behind. Meet the Lake County team that rescues them.

LEAP team members rescued this goat from the Pawnee Fire.
LEAP team members rescued this goat from the Pawnee Fire. Lake County Animal Care & Control

Seven pigs, two horses, five dogs, three or four cats and a goat. Left behind in the throes of evacuations from the Pawnee Fire in Lake County, all those animals were saved from impending flames and shepherded to a county shelter.

Their rescuers? The Lake Evacuation & Animal Protection (LEAP) team, a group of animal shelter staff and animal-loving volunteers who have been training for crises just like this one.

LEAP was founded just before the Wye Fire of 2011. Its staff members "haven't gotten a break since," said Bill Davidson, the organization's director.

Northern California has suffered intense fire season after intense fire season in recent years, which has given LEAP's new members a trial by fire - literally.

Before volunteers can begin work with LEAP, they must complete both internal and governmental training classes, as well as a humane organization's disaster preparedness course

Even after the training, LEAP staff must wait for first responders, like a fire crew or law enforcement agency, to grant the group access to evacuation zones.

They got that approval at 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, when the Lake County Sheriff's Department asked LEAP to deploy its personnel to the Spring Valley community and other areas threatened by the blaze, Davidson said.

Mandatory evacuation orders can occur with little warning, Davidson said, so people shopping at the grocery store or attending a doctor's appointment often can't get back to where their pets and livestock are. On Saturday, LEAP split into teams of two and headed toward the residences of community members who had called them for help.

Pigs2.jpg
A pig rescued from the Pawnee Fire by LEAP staff members splashes in a trough. Bill Davidson Lake County Animal Care & Control

In the field, Cal Fire firefighters are LEAP's "eyes and ears," Davidson said, telling the group where they should and should not go.

This weekend, they worked for almost 36 hours straight. They only stopped at 6 p.m. on Sunday because, after their initial deployment, LEAP avoids working at night, when dealing with spooked horses and unpredictable flames becomes too dangerous, Davidson said.

Community members unaffiliated with LEAP aren't allowed to enter evacuation areas to mount their own vigilante animal rescue operation. That doesn't mean concerned individuals can't do anything to help, according to Debbie James, the President of the Lake County Horse Council.

"My ranch is always open," said James, who lives about 30 minutes from the Pawnee Fire. She and other members of the council have been working to stockpile hay for displaced horses to eat.

The good news, she said, is that although some horses were left behind as locals evacuated, she hadn't heard of any life-threatening crises in the county as of Monday afternoon.

The Pawnee Fire covered 8,200 acres and 0 percent contained as of 11:34 a.m. Monday morning. LEAP will continue to rescue animals until evacuation orders are lifted for the county, Davidson said.

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