The news of the horrendous Camp Fire (now the worst fire on record for California) which devastated the entire town of Paradise, CA reached our local area. Several of our horse community members jumped into action to assist the people and animals who survived the fire storm. Jennifer Best was one who took action and personally delivered aid and experienced the devastation first-hand. We all know that our own communities are a spark and a gusty wind away from devastation as well. So we feel for those who lost people, property and pets in the devastating Camp Fire which raged through a rural community in Northern California, November 2018. – Publisher’s Note
The Best-laid Plans Could Not Be Carried Out
Our household includes several animals (livestock and pets alike) and several people, and the thought of managing an evacuation in the very likely event of a fire is often on my mind. We have a plan in place, but that plan requires several conditions, chiefly: more than one driver being HOME when the fire breaks out; the fire moving slow enough for us to be able to implement that plan.
While many of these people in Paradise and the surrounding area may have had a plan in place, so many of them had no time to implement that plan. I spoke to one man who had three minutes to get out. Another family of four who fled within 15 minutes, no time to gather their multiple farm animals. Within 15 minutes of their departure, the neighbor, who stayed behind, watched the place go up in flames. Not a single structure, not a shed, was left standing.
A Window of Opportunity Opened Up to Assist Camp Fire Victims
I had wanted to help in some way, but our family’s work, school and volunteer schedule locally is usually chock full of obligations. The opportunity arose when my teenager needed a ride a few hours north of our Creston home. I decided I’d carry on another five hours north and make a delivery overnight of whatever our community put together, then return the following day to bring her home.
A Call For Donations Based on Needs
Well, that plan changed as the rescue situation continued to grow and as the community responded to my call for donations. Because so much junk (truly junk) had already been donated to the shelters, it was true that the human shelters were overrun with piles of items that were entirely unusable. (What is a person without a single stick of their home left going to do with a 20-year-old vacuum cleaner with a frayed electrical cord?)
The major entity coordinating animal evacuations up that way was reporting it didn’t need any more donations, but social media allowed volunteers working in the shelters to close that communication gap and voice very specific, up-to-the-minute need requests. So, based on that information, I built a specific list of donations I’d accept for my trip north. I was also going to tow up the horse trailer in case my rig could be put to use up there.
Local Horse Community Heeds the Call for Donations
I put out the call to the community via social media four days in advance of my run north, with Santa Margarita Feed & Farm Supply being the drop point thanks to the support of the owners, Jodi and John Taylor. By Wednesday morning, the pile of donations had grown to about half a pallet of feed bags and a few other donations for human needs. Nothing unmanageable. I figured I’d swing by Thursday on my way out and quickly snap up the donations and head out. But the last-minute rush was on, and by the time I arrived for pickup Thursday morning, there were seven pallets of donations ready to go! There was a check donated by Atascadero Horsemen’s Club for me to purchase whatever needs remained before heading north, so I used it to purchase poultry waterers and feeders that had been requested just the night before by shelter workers.
Stacking and Packing the Aid for People and Pets Affected by the Camp Fire
Jill Gallagher of Santa Margarita, Louise Hamm of Creston, Vickie Conger of Templeton and I along with Jodi and store employees managed to get half of it loaded in about 90 minutes, including an overloaded truck bed, stacked two-horse trailer, and the first-aid, toiletries, vet supplies, diapers and bedding stacked quite literally to the roof in the trailer tack room. We had to hold the last bag in to get the door shut and locked. (And opened it VERY gingerly upon arrival in Biggs.)
We worked out a plan for me to take a second trip up Friday, with Jodi and John so wonderfully offering to meet me at the shop after hours to load up the second half. Since that load’s fourth pallet of feed wouldn’t fit my rig’s capacity, we swapped it for a more pressing need of vet supplies, cleaning out the feed store. (My apologies to anyone looking for Vetricyn, betadine, vet wrap or any number of other general use vet supplies before they could restock!)
Distributing the Donations
Because there were mixed messages about whether or not the shelters were accepting donations, I worked through contacts I’d made with active volunteers to talk to Wheeler Ranch & Feed in Biggs, just up the road from Gridley where fairgrounds housed most of the livestock from the evacuation effort in and around Paradise. Kari & Doug Wheeler, Cal Poly grads, were serving as a hub for donors turned away at shelters. They were redistributing those donations to the various shelters as well as verifiable individuals affected by the fires.
I dropped everything from the first load except the poultry waterers and feeders at their place, then called it a night shortly before midnight. Friday morning, I was able to deliver the feeders/waterers and some poultry food to the shelter in Gridley. Once at the barn, I also learned the nonprofit’s administration was providing the media with the incorrect message: feed and volunteer help was very much needed. I stayed for a few hours to lend a hand, then turned for home for the second load.
Round Two of Donations
The Taylors met me at the feed store in Santa Margarita shortly after 8 p.m., then I was back on the road, driving north late in hopes of avoiding the horrible traffic I’d limped through on the first round-trip. At 7:30 a.m., I was back onsite, signed in as a volunteer, and unloading the entire load at Gridley with the help of three other volunteers there.
Stories of the People Whose Lives Have Been Altered by the Camp Fire
In the dirt parking lot where I would camp for the remainder of my stay, I met Grace, a senior who, with the help of her daughter, had escaped the path of the fire with her dog and several goats. While her goat family sheltered in the barn, she and her dog stayed in their vintage Honda, their old truck and trailer parked alongside. A friend of mine had donated some camping supplies for me to deliver up north, so I approached her and made the offer. Though she had nothing but bedding and dog dishes, she refused the tent and other camping supplies, but her interest was piqued by the camp stove. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to use it, though, so I whipped it out, set it up on the tailgate of my truck and sparked it off. Her eyes lit up, she clasped her hands and said, “Oh! I could have hot tea in the morning!” She gratefully took it as I got to know her guard dog, a true protector who really didn’t care for strangers. The following morning as I passed, her dog greeted me with wagging tail as Grace walked quickly toward me, arms outstretched, wide smile, calling, “I had my FAVORITE tea this morning! Thank you!”
Smiles, Hope, Each Other and Their Animals : Camp Fire Remnants
On Saturday, I worked in the livestock barn from 7:30 a.m. until shortly after 8 p.m. After unloading the SLO County donations, I worked my way down the barn aisles, filling in as needed. The greatest need, it turned out, was down at the poultry end, where I met a family who was reunited with most of their birds including: three turkeys, nine geese, and dozens of ducks and chickens. Though their entire farm was lost, the couple and their young boys were so happy to see their animals alive, so grateful for the shelter and its volunteers. They had a positive outlook about the future, rebuilding, moving home again. They were incredible people with nothing but smiles and hope, each other and their animals.
An Entire Community Wiped Out
Sunday, I partnered with a horsewoman and E.R. nurse from Butte County to join Cowboy 911 to use my rig to feed animals sheltering in place in Paradise and bring back any animals that needed veterinary care. The devastation of seeing an entire community wiped clean was sometimes incomprehensible, often spooky.
Scenes I’ll not likely forget: the senior care facility, gutted by fire, with wheelchairs scattered along the parking lot where, presumably, residents were loaded into fleeing vehicles; the metal frame of a tricycle standing alone in the ash; the sound of a garden bug repellent sprayer spritzing the ash at regular intervals; the senior couple who sat out the fire at their vintage mobile home, still scarred by the last fire, who told me the story of the fire as it wiped out all the homes around them.
No Simple Task Getting Back to Life After Evacuation
The evacuation may be coming to a close, but these animals will be in shelter for months, some perhaps even years. Many will never be claimed due to the loss of human life up there. Shelter workers were already aware of the deaths of some of the animals’ owners. There will be need for foster families, ongoing sheltering, and, for some who may never be able to recover their pets for any of a number of personal reasons, new homes will be needed for every form of life, from farm animals to household pets. Their people will also need ongoing support as the community rebuilds. Their insurance is unlikely to cover all of their expenses, and there are jobs lost, families devastated by death.
Connections Very Close to Home
I later learned that friends of my mother were displaced by the fire. They had an immediately optimistic point of view after losing their home. They had been out of town with their trailer, dogs and tow vehicle. They were grateful not to have been home, clearly, but also to have shelter, a means of transportation, each other and their pets all safe. They are retired, so don’t have to worry about job loss, and they’ll be able to rebuild.
We’ll Say it Again : BE PREPARED
I learned that a community can never be too prepared for a disaster, and that there are never too many volunteers. I have rejoined Horse Emergency Evacuation Team (HEET) here on the Central Coast, and will bring back the lessons I learned up north in hopes of helping grow and improve and contribute to that program.
Educate Yourself and Be Ready to Lend a Hand
HEET works with emergency services agencies to respond within the unified command structure that aims to keep responses organized and safe. I encourage anyone with interest in livestock, livestock experience, with or without their own truck/trailer to join HEET, take advantage of the trainings done in cooperation with fire departments and law enforcement agencies, and be a part of the solution.
Take CPR and First Aid. Get involved in SLO County’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), which is now in development. While we may all have skills we can contribute in a time of need, being registered with these organizations allows us to jump in with both feet rather than wade through paperwork or vetting processes or create confusion by working around systems in place. If your passion is animals, get involved with HEET. If your passion is people, check out our local Salvation Army programs. Teach children in your life skills that will help them help others in an emergency both now and throughout their lives: everyday self sufficiency, everyday animal care, first aid, CPR, leadership.
I have no immediate plans to head north again, but I’m now a HEET member, Cowboy 911 member, and I’m ready to step in again whenever the need arises. A community is as good as the people willing to serve it. I hope my community will also step forward with disaster planning and response.
All Photos: Jennifer Best