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McKinney Fire spared Patches

James Benton is reunited with his dog Patches at the Rescue Ranch in Yreka. Benton had feared Patches had been killed when the McKinney Fire overran his home. [Photo courtesy of Natalie Golay]
James Benton shot this photo hours before a fire tornado from the McKinney Fire swept across his property. His German shepherd, Trooper, seen here, is still unaccounted for.
Man holds out hope that at least one of his missing dogs survived and will be found

Having narrowly escaped the flames of the McKinney Fire last Friday, 42-year-old James “Mac” Benton was unable to fight back tears Sunday as he reunited with his black-and-white puppy, Patches, whom he thought had burned in the blaze.

Dropping to the ground against a parked car, he pressed his face against the wiggling 3-month-old pup, overwhelmed by gratitude and “a beautiful moment” he never expected to receive.

Survivors of a literal hell, Benton and Patches lived in the Walker Bridge area along the Klamath River near Highway 96. As the McKinney Fire raged, Benton and his neighbors kept a close eye on the fire burning on the opposite side of the river, which at the time seemed to be “a good distance away.”

Then came a fire tornado, a phenomenon in which the flames transform into a whirlwind of fire, spiraling skyward with terrifying speed and power. Suddenly, Benton’s home was engulfed in relentless flames and heaving winds.

“Everything was moving slowly when suddenly it boomed up and created a fire tornado, which I had never heard of before last week,” Benton said.

He and some neighbors raced toward a motor home. Benton made a desperate, last-ditch effort to corral his five dogs. Scooping up his French bulldog, PeeWee, the least agile of the five, he called on his German shepherd, Trooper, to follow with a trio of pitbull-Australian shepherd mix puppies — Brutus, Tanner and Patches.

“Always the more hesitant pup,” Patches turned back first. Trooper followed Benton for a bit longer. After delivering PeeWee to the motor home, Benton braved the flames, heavy winds lifting him off his feet and embers scorching his skin, crying out for Trooper.

“Trooper is smart in a way most dogs aren’t. He’s uncanny smart. He opens doors with his paws. He can unlock doors. He’s an amazing dog,” Benton said a week after his life turned upside down.

“It had to be the scariest thing a dog could experience. It was extremely hard to breathe or see anything. Imagine being in a tornado as it sucks the air from your lungs, and it’s lifting you off the ground. But then imagine fire and ash, and you’re breathing in the heat. It was the scariest and loudest thing I’ve ever experienced.”

After getting clear of the inferno, Benton almost immediately regretted not staying behind.

“I couldn’t stop thinking about how scared the dogs must have been. I felt like a horrible person, I wasn’t able to get them all. They were expecting me to protect them,” Benton said.

“I was literally blacking out and getting burned. I couldn’t see or breathe. I’d have gone back for Trooper, even if it meant getting left behind, but my friends wouldn’t leave, so it was going through my mind everybody was going to die if I didn’t get back to that motor home.”

A friend of Benton’s drove several people off the property — but a roommate of Benton’s stayed behind.

“He refused to leave,” Benton told the Sacramento Bee. “He said he was gonna stay there. He had been through this before and he was gonna stay and fight the fire or whatever. He was very stubborn.”

As they fled in the motor home, they stopped to rescue a neighbor whose camper caught fire — the man’s dog and cat trapped behind a door too hot to open.

“It was heartbreaking. He lost them both. We had flames engulfing us as we drove down the road. I can’t believe we didn’t catch on fire ourselves,” Benton recalled.

Two days later, on July 31, some friends alerted Benton that a scorched, 3-month-old puppy had turned up at the Rescue Ranch, a nonprofit animal rescue facility in Yreka. As of Thursday, the organization had taken in 160 dogs affected by the fire.

Patches had been found Saturday by a photojournalist who was surveying damage to Benton’s neighborhood and posted a video to Twitter (https://twitter.com/aiofilmz) of a singed white-and-black puppy emerging from the rubble.

Natalie Golay, Rescue Ranch communications director, said the story of Benton and Patches was a bright spot amid endless devastation.

“It was very, very emotional to see their reunion. He’s lost everything. But finding Patches, he told us, gave him some hope that her siblings had survived, too.”

Benton went back to his home a couple times to look for his companions. On one trip, Benton discovered the ashes of Tanner — the pup had retreated to a bedroom. He also found human remains, which he suspected to be his roommate.

As of Friday, Siskiyou County authorities had not released the names of any of the four people so far known to have been killed by the fire.

Benton said he can’t shake the feeling that Trooper and Brutus might be OK.

“I went back with one of my neighbors when we heard about people looting, to help him load his safes. He had to bury his cat, so while he was doing that, I climbed the mountain across from our house to get a better look,” he said.

“Helicopters were dropping water, and the trees were still smoking. I looked for 30 to 40 minutes and got a good yell out for Trooper. I don’t think he would’ve stuck around but, if he heard me, then he’ll know Dad’s trying to find him.

“I’ve been checking the places where animals are being taken and putting out the word. If I don’t hear anything soon, I might jump in my raft and float down the river. I got to find Trooper. He's my best friend. We don’t know how Patches made it, and we only found Tanner. I feel like Trooper and Brutus got out, too.”

Benton was determined to focus on the blessings he’d received amid the devastation.

“All I have of all my worldly possessions is my French bulldog and Patches. I could not be happier for those two blessings,” he said.

“I could only be more grateful if I could get Trooper and Brutus back. Nothing would bring me more joy than to know they’re OK and for them to know that I came back.”

A GoFundMe has been set up for Benton at https://tinyurl.com/2pfnpmtv. As of Friday afternoon, $450 had been raised.

Funds will be used to purchase a used four-wheel-drive vehicle — his was lost in the fire — and backpacking gear to allow him to search for his “missing canine family.” His French bulldog is also in need of medical attention, and Benton could use some clothing and basic necessities.

Anyone with information about Trooper or Brutus can call the Rescue Ranch at 530-842-0829. The ranch is open from noon to 4 p.m., Thursday through Tuesday, to accept donations or for evacuees to look for lost pets. To donate to the facility, see rrdog.org/wildfire

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Buffy Pollock at 541-776-8784 or bpollock@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @orwritergal.