In the days after the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise and surrounding towns, Magalia resident Stephanie Couch didn’t know if her dogs Copper and Chewie had survived.
Desperate for information about the canines she considers family, she turned to an unlikely source: Professional motorcycle racer and makeup model Shelina Moreda.
“We had reached out to everybody we could think of to get them, and it had been almost nine days,” said Couch from Live Oak where she is staying with a friend. “I can’t have kids. My dogs are my kids.”
Moreda, a native of Petaluma, is a pioneer on the race track. She’s the first woman to have raced a motorcycle at Indy Raceway, home of the Indianapolis 500, and is one of only a few women competing professionally internationally and in the United States.
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Last year, CoverGirl tapped her for its “I am what I make up” campaign.
Moreda, 30, said racing is her “dream job,” but for the last year, she’s also had a volunteer side gig: Rogue animal rescuer.
Since the night the Camp Fire barreled out of the foothills killing at least 88 people and burning most of the town, Moreda has been crossing active fire lines and entering the evacuation zone to save animals. Working as a county-registered volunteer, she has talked her way past law enforcement barricades, broken into homes (with owners’ permission) and even chased a swan into the back of a cop car, she said.
“If there’s a road block, literally or figuratively, I’m going to figure out how things happen,” said Moreda this week from the Sacramento area, where she was passing through on her way to Concord to reunite a cat with its owner. “That’s always been my attitude in life, and that’s helped me with animal rescues.”
Hearing about Moreda’s clandestine efforts, a friend of Couch’s contacted the animal rescue organization Moreda founded last year. Nine days after the fire began, Couch got a call from Moreda, who was outside Couch’s house in Paradise.
“I hear your dog, do I have permission to go in?” Couch said Moreda asked.
Moreda climbed through Couch’s bathroom window, apologizing for breaking a statue on the way in. She found Copper inside.
“At that point I just break out in tears,” Couch said.
Chewie was hiding in a bedroom closet, curled up in blankets. At midnight, Couch drove up Skyway, the main road into Paradise, meeting Moreda on the side of the road. Moreda opened her car door and told Couch, “Your babies are right here.”
“If it wasn’t for Shelina and her group, I don’t know if my dogs would’ve made it,” Couch said.
Moreda first started animal rescue efforts when the Tubbs Fire erupted in Santa Rosa near her family dairy farm last year. Moreda, who still helps manage the farm, said she learned her love of both animals and bikes growing up there. Her father let her use quads and later two-wheelers to do chores on the property, including rounding up cows.
As the Tubbs Fire spread, Moreda received a call that some horses needed to be evacuated in the Santa Rosa area and immediately drove out with her truck and hauler.
Word had spread of the horses’ need and she was stopped at a road block — along with more than a dozen other haulers, all attempting to save the same animals. Moreda realized there needed to be a more strategic way for volunteers to work.
“We needed to cooperate, so I became a kind of dispatcher,” she said. Within a few days, she had established the NorCal Livestock Evacuation and Support nonprofit, and has since grown the volunteer group into a 98 truck-and-trailer fleet.
She describes it as, “a bunch of farm kids that came together (because) we all care about animals.”
Since then, they’ve helped evacuate animals ahead of many of the state’s most destructive fires, including the Mendocino, Carr and Delta blazes. The Camp Fire, the seventh fire the organization has been involved in, was the first where most of their work happened in active fire areas and evacuation zones, instead of in areas where the blazes threatened but hadn’t reached.
Moreda, along with a reported 600 volunteers, has spent the last three weeks rescuing thousands of injured pets and livestock across Paradise, Magalia and Concow — everything from cats and dogs trapped in the still-standing homes of those who fled during the evacuation, to singed horses, llamas, goats and even a pet flying squirrel, she said.
“I didn’t sleep for the first two nights,” Moreda said. She would rest in her truck, then be woken up by another emergency call from a desperate owner.
“I don’t look like a CoverGirl the whole time,” she said with a laugh.
Her organization received 70 calls a day during the first week. The second day of the fire, “We had a horse, a goat, a swan and four cats in the truck and trailer with us,” she said. “And that was what we picked up over 8 o’clock at night to 8 o’clock in the morning.”
While Butte County Animal Control and North Valley Animal Disaster Group have been charged with leading recovery efforts, existing volunteer groups like Moreda’s have been signed on to triage the massive animal rescue efforts.
“We put out 40 tons of feed one day between the shelters and animals on the hill,” said Nathan Wilkinson of the volunteer group Cowboy 911. “Dog food, cat food, hay, you name it, that’s why it took an army of people.”
The Humane Society of the United States and the United States Department of Agriculture estimate between 100,000 and 150,000 domesticated animals have been affected by the Camp Fire, Wilkinson said.
Moreda said she has had to make many calls with hard news: The house is gone and so are the animals.
One horse she found was so badly burned that a veterinarian decided it needed to be put down. The chicken coop on the property was completely destroyed, the pig was nothing but bones and the owner’s house, she said she told them over the phone, “was down to the ground.”
“These are the hardest situations I’ve ever had to deal with,” she said.
Good moments keep her going.
“I’ve had to tell so many people they’ve lost everything but then I found their dog down the road, or we will go in and find their burned cat and be able to reunite them,” she said. “It’s the best feeling in world. You’ve brought out the last hope to them. I’m delivering it to them in a little crate.”
Reunification efforts are an uphill battle, though, with calls continuing to come in. County agencies log them in “a three-inch binder thick (with) paper, full of all these lost animal reports,” she said. “We’re trying to go through them and get animals back with owners (but) the whole thing is a mess.”
As evacuation orders are lifted, she’s taking a step back from going into burned areas and instead is driving to different shelters and veterinarian offices to help return animals to owners.
Moreda has also started meeting with members of the state’s Office of Emergency Services.
She hopes the Camp Fire can serve as a catalyst to update and streamline animal rescue deployment, shelter and reunification programs across the state to capitalize on local volunteers’ expertise and equipment. She said the current system is lacking, leaving too many animals abandoned, and too few reunited with families.
“I’m not trying to make a job for myself, I already have my dream job,” she said. “Until I see that (emergency organizations) have a better plan in place, I’m not going to sleep, I’m not going to rest. ... You can’t just let every Tom, Dick and Harry in (evacuation zones) but you also need some justice for people and their animals.”
This article was updated on Dec. 2 at 10:20 am to reflect Shelina Moreda’s correct age.