Veterinarians focus on rebuilding after California firestorms

Efforts under way to shelter, save animals

October 12, 2017 (published)
By Jennifer Fiala

Dr. Teresa Crocker backyard camping set up
Facebook photo
Dr. Teresa Crocker reflected on the circumstances that allowed her family to safely flee the wildfires scorching Northern California. On Facebook, she wrote: "This little backyard camping set up is the reason we got out when we did with all our animals. I was listening to the wind and watching the shooting stars when the wind changed and the fireballs began shooting towards the sky rather than the Earth. So thankful for small blessings."

It was nearly 1 a.m. on Monday when Dr. Teresa Crocker heard a subtle roar, much like the sound of the ocean.

The equine veterinarian was camping outside her ridgeline home in Santa Rosa, watching the fall meteor showers. It was the wind, Crocker said, that hinted something was amiss.

"All the sudden, it was different," she said. "I looked north, and I could see it glowing."

To Crocker's south, the view was similar. Wildfire. Overnight, at least 15 separate blazes had broken out in California wine country, kicking off a firestorm that has decimated 190,000 acres of land in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. 

Within an hour, Crocker and her family had packed their cars with pets and valuables, loaded two horses in a trailer and made their way down the ridge as embers rained around them.

"There's only one road out," she said. "Some of our neighbors had to cut through a fence and drive through a vineyard. I just started calling clients at surrounding properties at 4 in the morning, saying, 'Get up and get out to the barn. You need to get the horses out!' "

Initially, some residents were reluctant to leave. "My own husband was in shock, saying, 'Do you think it's coming this way?' It's like people were waiting for someone to give orders to evacuate, but there was no one giving orders. I could see a flame line a mile long going up a ridgeline east to west, and there was not a single fire engine there."

Fire crews were busy elsewhere, battling what's widely considered to be the worst fire disaster in California's history. Gov. Jerry Brown declared states of emergency for eight counties and ordered the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. At least 29 people are confirmed dead, and more than half the fatalities occurred in Sonoma County. Hundreds of people are unaccounted for in the region.

"Twenty-six people from our subdivision are still missing," Crocker reported Thursday.

Connecting online

Dozens of animal rescuers, health care workers and veterinarians have turned to social media to offer support and share their experiences. At least one Facebook page is dedicated to connecting stray and abandoned pets with their owners.

The California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps deployed veterinarians and technicians on Wednesday to Sonoma County, where they are caring for injured animals and helping with evacuations. The group, which is calling for additional volunteers, posted several photos to Facebook under the caption: "Our selfless volunteers provide are for animals affected by the Sonoma fires. They are truly heroes in action."

Many veterinary practices are closed. Northtown Animal Hospital in Santa Rosa is among the estimated 3,500 homes and businesses destroyed, according to a post on the practice's Facebook page.

"Right now, Northtown is smoldering," Dr. Racelle LaMar wrote on Monday. "I am working to get a way to access records for you all. … All the people and pets are OK."

Announcing plans to rebuild, she added: "Message me with ideas for a new improved Northtown."

Dr. Jeff Smith of Middletown Animal Hospital in Lake County reportedly has treated hundreds of injuried animals. "These fires are like living the horrible nightmare all over again!" reads a post on the practice's Facebook page. "... We have five evacuated horses at the clinic in Middletown but (have) room for more animals if needed. Dr. Smith has been driving the vet truck down to Calistoga to take care of large animals in that area."

PetCare Veterinary Hospital has two practices, both in Santa Rosa. One practice is taking only emergency cases. Employees and patients working at the other facility evacuated, staff member Audrey Dussault reported Tuesday. 

"We lost power at our hospital around 1:45 this morning, and the fire was making its way to our area," Dussault wrote in a Facebook post. "We did some pre-arranging, made sure all dogs had leashes, all small pets dogs/cats had kennels nearby, and we had a plan in place in case we needed to evacuate us AND all our 30+ patients. By 3:45 a.m., the air quality was getting bad, and it wasn't safe for us to be there any longer."

'It's all charred'

For now, Crocker lives in a trailer with her husband, daughter and pets. Authorities permitted her to return home on Tuesday so she might search for lost or injured animals in the area. 

What she found was a neighbhood decimated. Her home and office, barn and the 500-year-old bay tree that once canopied her property are gone. The tree's oily leaves tend to "go up like sparklers" when exposed to heat, she said.

"It fell across the driveway, across my other vehicle and landed on top of my office. Its all charred; there's nothing left," she said.

Sifting through rubble of her home, she's found metal remnants — the hand of a shovel, a necklace — but any records that weren't digitized are ash. "There were fire-safe filing cabinets in my office, where I had hard-film radiographs. One looks like it was cleaved by an axe," Crocker said. "The center of it literally melted."

Above the cabinets hung Crocker's veterinary medical diploma. She found a scrap of it in the rubble, along with the charred remnant of a veterinary journal article. It was "a perfectly sculpted excerpt about how veterinarians are so crappy at running businesses," she said. "I saw that, and I just sat down and laughed."

Despite the devastation, Crocker counts herself among the fortunate. She has her health. Her daughter and husband are safe. Her small business is solid, with clients who are like family. One of them is temporarily sheltering her horses, and another client has loaned her the trailer where she lives. A GoFundMe site is collecting donations to help Crocker rebuild. Nearly $14,000 has been amassed since Wednesday, when one of her clients started the campaign.

"The woman who spends 12 hour days saving our horses lives has lost everything," the page reads. "It's all burnt. (Teresa) of North Coast Equine now needs our love and support. Please give what you can to help her restart her life. She is an angel on this planet."

Crocker has insurance and will rebuild once the area's infrastructure returns. Right now, she's focused on establishing a safe place to store drugs and equipment. Maybe she'll take a vacation.

"There's so much you lose. There were six generations of heirlooms from my family in that house," she said. "But when I'm walking around the property, and I see a scrap of something like my diploma, I have hope. It's like there's a clean slate."

Spotting hints of life returning to the area — specks of greenery and signs of animals — Crocker shares that hundreds of bulbs are buried around the property where her home once stood. She toys with the idea of erecting a teepee and living on the land, watching it regenerate.

"In February and March, they're all going to come up. It's going to be beautiful," she said.

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