The fire came in the night, a storm without warning.
At his home in Middletown, a small town of 1900 just north of California’s idyllic wine country, veterinarian Jeff Smith ventured outside after the worst had passed to find only 8 of the 20 homes in his neighborhood survived the firestorm. With communication centers down, there was no way to determine when help was coming.
He had no way of knowing what he was up against, or the fact that by this time only 40% of the structures in town would still be standing. All he knew was that his community was leveled. So Dr. Smith hopped in his truck and went to work.
The Middletown Animal Clinic, surrounded by gravel that resists catching fire, was miraculously intact. Dr. Smith pulled bales of hay from his feed storage and small buckets to place in his truck, dumping bales of hay and water wherever he could find live animals. The fencing was all gone, burned along with everything else.
Severe wildfires can create their own wind system, creating fingers of flame twirling up to the sky and blowing gales of cinders across roads to catch entire neighborhoods aflame. Dr. Grant Miller, another local veterinarian who serves as Unit Director of the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, was finally allowed in to Middletown the following morning.
“It’s apocalyptic,” Miller said. “It dissolved the entire town of Middletown. The things we saw on the way in…” he pauses. “I can’t even tell you.” With the arrival of a generator and supplies, Smith opened the doors to his clinic and vowed to treat any animal who needed it, for free.
With hundreds of miles of power lines down and roads closed to all but essential emergency personnel for days, the animals were initially left to fend for themselves. Smith treated the many burned and injured animals brought to him, but with the arrival of more veterinary volunteers, teams were able to venture into the area to look for more.
With the small reprieve of rain one day, Miller is convinced it saved the lives of many animals the teams had yet to find. “By God’s good grace it rained an entire inch, and provided some water to these stranded animals. When they’re burned they have insensible losses through their skin. I am in awe of these animals.”
Eight days after the flames, “we’re still pulling animals in,” said Miller. “At first it was a lot of sheep and goats, then steady numbers of dogs and cats. Now we’re finding horses and cows. They’re still finding cats alive in melted cars.”
Teams from the nearby University of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine assisted with the treatment and are taking the most severely injured animals in. “UC Davis has taken in over 70 burned animals- mostly cats,” Miller said. “They are functioning as a referral center. I just arranged transport for a puppy. They’ve been amazing.”
The Valley Fire now ranks in the top 3 worst fires in California history; at last tally, almost 2000 structures were destroyed. Lake County is California’s poorest county, says Miller, with an average income of about $35,000. “They were economically depressed to begin with,” Miller says, “and now they’ve lost everything.”
In the face of this disaster, Smith vowed to treat all these animals without cost for as long as their injuries require, an estimated 4-6 months.
“Burns are not easy injuries to manage,” says Miller. “His clinic is going to be the last option when everything else is gone.” When the camera crews leave and immediate disaster response withdraws, this community still will need all the support they can get.
Miller pauses again to reflect on the long road ahead, or maybe just from the exhaustion of four hours of sleep every night for a week. “You look at these animals, and you know how much they have suffered. You just want so badly to turn things around for them, and you would move heaven and earth to make it happen.”
A GoFundMe has been set up for donations to sustain the Middletown Animal Hospital during this period. In addition, Wells Fargo is accepting donations at any location nationwide to Wells Fargo Account, #2872526005.
All photos courtesy Dr. Grant Miller. Used with permission.