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‘We had to help wherever we were able’

David Nappi, of Medford, and his dog Lucky, hang out on a cot at the Jackson County Expo after the Almeda fire.
Volunteers recall the race against time to save animals from the Almeda fire

Local animal transporters say they have grown accustomed to being called to help rescue and move pets and farm animals during regional emergencies over the years, but the calls for help that came during last summer’s Almeda fire are forever seared in their minds.

Close to home, rapidly moving and bigger than anyone could have imagined, the fire tore across the southern end of the valley, fueled by high winds as it destroyed parts of Ashland, Talent and Phoenix.

In the hours during and after the fire, animal transporters worked around the clock to help property owners save their animals.

Former longtime Phoenix resident Jana Delong, with eight years of experience facilitating for Southern Oregon Emergency Aid, is no stranger to helping animals in harm’s way.

Even so, she said, the Almeda fire hit closer to home than previous disasters.

At work as a caregiver in Ashland, DeLong had no warning about the fire other than early social media reports. Fielding calls from both desperate community members and willing volunteers, she spent 14 to 16 hours per day on her phone for five days, coordinating evacuation of everything from emus and pigs to horses and cows.

With her own home in the fire’s path, she found solace in helping her community during the crisis.

“It was therapeutic to be able to do something productive. We’ve done so many evacuations over eight years, it gave me a way that I could do something other than worry about my own losses,” DeLong said.

“There wasn’t time to think about things or be sad. It was get in and get out with Almeda.”

One of the biggest problems in dealing with the fire, DeLong said, was that the magnitude and speed of the blaze caught so many off guard, leaving little time to grab personal items, much less load livestock into trailers.

“We had people that wouldn’t leave without their animals, and so we had to go in and help them get the animals out for them to be able to go,” DeLong said.

Volunteer transporter Dan Cake said he spent as much time negotiating his way behind fire lines and roadblocks as he did loading frightened animals.

“The biggest problem we ran into on the rescue of animals was that we had to negotiate pretty heavily for access, and we were running out of time. I told one guy, ‘I’m not taking no for an answer.’ And he said, ‘Well, then you’re going at your own risk!’ The real question for the ones who wouldn’t let us in, I would ask, ‘Are YOU going to be willing to go in and at least let these animals out so they have a fighting chance?’” Cake said.

“A lot of times they’d go ahead and let me in. When they wouldn’t, we’d spend even more time driving around to find different ways to get in.”

With multiple fires happening at the same time as Almeda, Cake said it was surreal to be transporting animals with so much of the region in flames.

Some of the animals being rescued seemed to feel the same way.

“We had a pig that absolutely did not want to be loaded. I spent a couple, three hours trying to move this pig. We couldn’t get her in the trailer. At one point I asked the owner if they had a tractor with hydraulics, but we never could get her,” said Cake.

“At one point I thought, even If we loaded the pig, I didn’t know where it would go. There were so many fires, but all we could do was focus on getting them out of harm’s way and we’d figure the rest out later.”

Volunteer Jennifer Rice, who said she wrangled at least one goat who felt the same way as that 600-pound pig, said lack of warning hindered evacuation efforts, but transporters rose to the occasion. Rice still marvels at how quickly countless homes, community members and animals were in danger.

“I was at work around 11 a.m. and remember hearing on the scanner that the winds were going the wrong way and it was a lot of wind. Then they were talking about a fire in Ashland, and all of a sudden it was going across the freeway and into houses. You could hear the panic in everybody’s voices,” she said.

Heavy on the minds of volunteers, Rice said, was that DeLong was steadily dispatching volunteers and finding resources for displaced animals as her own home, and her entire neighborhood in Coleman Creek Estates, was reduced to ashes.

“Jana and I had talked several times throughout the day, and she had just announced that her property was being evacuated and that she didn’t know what was going to happen. Less than 20 minutes later she calls and said, ‘My house is gone,” Rice said.

“A lot of people would have needed to take some time, but she said, ‘No, I have to worry about other things right now.”

While losing her home was devastating, DeLong said she realized how important their efforts were when a friend was able to drive to her home within minutes of it burning down and save DeLong’s beloved dog Ronan.

“I think I’d of probably lost my own dog if it hadn’t been for my friend being willing to try to drive to my house during the fire. She was pulling out of the park as the flames were coming in,” DeLong recalled.

“Minutes later and she would not have been able to get my dog, while I’m on the phone helping rescue everyone else’s animals. ... If I had lost him, I don’t think I would have made it through this last year.”

Still homeless since the fire, staying with friends while she figures it all out, DeLong said she was grateful to be part of — and a recipient of — the good Samaritans who help animals.

“I didn’t really think about losing everything until days after the fire. As soon as Almeda had started dying down, Obenchain started back up, then Butte Falls was on fire. It was really just nonstop,” she said.

“When I knew I was going to lose my house, I knew that as long as my dog was OK, I would be all right. I wasn’t going to sit and cry about losing everything. I decided to do what we’ve been doing for eight years, so I got to work,” she said.

“We had to help wherever we were able, because we had people and animals we could still make a difference for.”

Reach freelance writer Buffy Pollock at buffyp76@yahoo.com.