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Furry faces of the fire by Lily baldwin

Residents of Northern California struggle to recover in the wake of the devastating fires that ravaged their communities. While the people mourn the loss of their homes and rifle through their charred belongings, their displaced animals remain in a state of confusion and helplessness. It’s impossible to drive through the roads of California without viewing hillsides of horses and cattle—and now that many residents are left without homes, subsequently, their animals are homeless, too.

However, these displaced animals have not been forgotten. Students, such as senior Jemima Dominguez, wasted no time offering up their homes as sanctuaries for animals who needed fostering during the crisis. Dominguez and her family took in a dog named Juno for friends who evacuated from Sonoma. According to Dominguez, the family had to stay in an apartment, waiting to hear any news about whether or not their home had been burned. The family was unable to take Juno along with them to the apartment, so Dominguez’s family offered to take her in.

“They have a farm, so that’s their whole business. If it burned down it would be their whole life savings, everything, gone. It was just the waiting game,” Dominguez said.

Fostering Juno was an easy decision for Dominguez as she loves animals and already owns two dogs of her own. Her family was more than happy to open their home to Juno, who stayed with them for two weeks while her evacuated owners waited to be let back into their home. Dominguez says she felt compelled to help because of her fondness for animals and believes it’s that same love that gives volunteer work meaning.

“I’m interested in animals, so doing this was a way to help but also was something that I’m interested in. If people can try to find connections to something that they are passionate about that they can help, I feel like that’s the most natural way to [volunteer]. If you actually enjoy it, then you’ll spend more time and it will be more meaningful,” Dominguez said.

Novato resident Laura Schifrin, a realtor and stepmother of two Tamalpais High students, also opened up her home and her stables for any creatures that needed shelter. This was not her first time taking in animals during times of crisis; according to Schifrin, she also fostered four dogs during Hurricane Harvey. Through social media, Schifrin was able to spread the word that she had available space to house pets while families stayed in hotels or shelters.

Within the first week that the fires had started, Schifrin provided shelter for nine farm animals, not including her own. Five of those horses belonged to a family she didn’t know, but through postings on Facebook, they were able to find her and bring their animals to her Indian Valley home within ten minutes. According to Schifrin, it was because of Facebook and a sense of community that these animals were able to find temporary homes.

“The heart of people was so amazing, wanting to help. This was a big social media thing. I posted that I had property on Facebook. Facebook was a huge contributor to the efforts, I think. I was just watching and spreading the word and letting people know I had space if anybody needed out,” Schifrin said.

“Our Novato community came together like nobody's business. It was a thing of beauty.”

Schifrin was at ease having horses on her property again, as she used to ride and is a self-described “horse person” who loves the animals.

“I like having horses back here. I stopped riding when I had my kid, but horses are a blood thing. They’re in your blood. It always felt really sad when there were no horses here,” Schifrin said.

While five horses were taken back to their undamaged homes, three pets still remain. A goat, named Clark, and two horses, Mambo and Bella, have no home to go back to. They continue to live in Schifrin’s spacious stables until their owners are able to find a new residence. According to Schifrin, there’s no better place for the animals to be while they wait for their families.

“The beauty of this place is that it’s so quiet back here. There’s no road noise, there’s no nothing, and there’s open spaces. I think a lot of the horses who evacuated to the fairgrounds had it much harder because they got put in little box stalls, with so much activity milling around and so much chaos. That must have been unbelievably stressful,” Schifrin said.

Keri Fennell, the Shelter Director at the Marin Humane Society, experienced that chaos firsthand when the fires began to spread. According to Fennell, she oversaw the evacuation of over 450 animals to the Humane Society over the past three weeks. As an open-door shelter, the Humane Society served as a haven for animals who had to leave their homes.

“We just kept counting how many animals we could put in here. And then they just start to come, and people came…we were no longer an adoption center, we were an evacuation center,” Fennell said.

According to Fennell, it was a struggle making space for so many pets. All adoptable animals had to be transported to other shelters, such as Silicon Valley Humane Society, in order to be able to make room for all the “emergency board” pets.

“We had cats and dogs and turkeys and birds.Our whole lobby was filled. We put parrots in people's offices; all of the adoption rooms were filled with evacuees and every [dog] run was too,” Fennell said. “We wanted to be prepared because we didn't know how many more would come.”

The shelter stayed open late every day of the week during the peak of the crisis, allowing evacuated people to come in regularly to visit their boarded pets. Even evacuated shelter employees came to work in order to assist with the process. One such employee was the Humane Society Marketing Coordinator, Julia Lamont, who was house-sitting in Glen Allen for her father and was evacuated in the middle of the night.

“It took us two hours to get to Novato, I got a couple hours of sleep then got up and came here. It was helpful to be around other people who were experiencing something similar. It was almost helpful to be distracted here and not just sit there and refresh the sheriff’s reports,” Lamont said.

Now, three weeks after the fires started, only 33 of the original 450 plus emergency boarded animals remain in the shelter. According to Fennell, these animals’ homes were destroyed in the fire. The majority of the 13 families who own these animals have been in contact with the shelter, but there are still two who have been out of reach since the animals were dropped off.

“I was surprised on Monday, when I went through the paperwork, how many people actually lost their homes of the animals we had here. I was thinking just a few, but it was quite a bit. Those are the ones that are still here,” Fennell said.

Those who took in animals during the emergency expressed similar feelings of heartache for the families and animals affected by the fires. Fennell was particularly moved while witnessing families leave, then later reunite with their animals. According to Fennell, watching the devastation hit close to home as a resident of Cotati, a parent and a pet owner.

“They didn’t know if their house was gone. It makes me cry a little bit, because you had this little boy who had no idea what was going on and he’s leaving his dog, and his mom is trying to explain that they were coming back for the dog. That’s what got me, was the little boy and picturing my son,” Fennell said.

The Humane Society has dealt with natural disaster evacuees before, according to Fennell. The shelter took in animals and assisted during Hurricane Katrina in 2004. However, this case was different.

“For some staff, this was very personal. Katrina was much different because we were so far, all we saw was what was on the news. But this was like, you smelled it. I’ve never experienced that, in that we were having something so personal happen,” Fennell said.

Schifrin and Dominguez also felt sympathy for their friends and neighbors who evacuated.

“It was really sad, because I know that the family already has a lot that they have to deal with and then this on top of it. That was really upsetting to watch. They had a pretty positive attitude about it, which helped,” Dominguez said.

Schifrin hopes that people will remember that just because the fires have been contained, it doesn’t mean that all is well. According to Schifrin, it’s important to remember that for many, the fires were just the beginning of a long journey to recovery.

“The story is just starting for them. Yeah, the fires happened, that was an emergency and we had a week of absolute panic. And now everybody else who lost their homes, who lost pets, who lost people, what are they doing? Where they going?” Schifrin said.

However, while the aftermath is a heavy scene of destruction, there was a gleam of hope that emerged from the ashes. Schifrin and Fennell both recognize how quickly the communities came together with good intentions at heart, and how lucky the evacuated animals are to be sheltered and in good care.

“It was heartbreaking, it was rejuvenating, it was uplifting, it was sad. People would come down here and say, ‘It just took us four hours to get here.’ We'd ask, ‘Did you lose your house?’ and they'd say, ‘I don't know.’ We really didn't ask a lot of questions. [We just told them] ‘your animals are safe, take care of yourself,’” Fennell said.

Created By
Lily Baldwin
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