Owner, dog reunited in aftermath of California wildfire

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Some Who Fled California Wildfire Find Their Home Destroyed



MIDDLETOWN, Calif. (AP) — Lawrence Ross looked beat, his head hanging and his eyes bloodshot five days after fleeing his home in the path of a wall of flames.

Ross showed up at a high school in the small Northern California town of Lower Lake, where authorities were escorting residents briefly into the evacuation zone to inspect their homes and check on pets and livestock. They had not let residents return since the fire erupted Saturday about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash.

When told officials were no longer letting residents in at all, not even with escorts, Ross sighed heavily, shook his head and fought back tears. "I think my house is OK, but I don't know, and my dog is there, and my goats and horses and alpacas," he told me. "My dog, my dog."

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Owner, dog reunited in aftermath of California wildfire
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Owner, dog reunited in aftermath of California wildfire
HOLD FOR STORY -- In this Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, photo, rescued dog "Thumper," a 70-pound lab, sits in the backseat of Associated Press reporter Brian Skoloff's rental car, as he drove it back to town to get reunited with her owner, resident Lawrence Ross. Skoloff retrieved Thumper as it crawled out from beneath a house covered in ash and soot in a wildfire evacuation zone near Middletown, Calif. Officials had not let residents return to the area since the fire had erupted about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash. Thumper survived among homes burned to their foundations and the five days she had been alone at the house that miraculously remained unscathed. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
In this Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, photo, Associated Press reporter Brian Skoloff pets "Thumper," a 70-pound lab, moments after the dog crawled out from beneath a crawl space of her owner's home, covered in ash and soot in a wildfire evacuation zone near Middletown, Calif. Skoloff returned the dog to his owner Lawrence Ross. Officials had not let residents return since the fire erupted about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash. Thumper survived among homes burned to their foundations and the five days she had been alone at the house that miraculously remained unscathed. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
This image taken with a drone shows a street in Middletown, Calif., where several homes were completely destroyed by the Lake County wildfire, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015. The fire that sped through Middletown and other parts of rural Lake County, less than 100 miles north of San Francisco, has continued to burn since Saturday despite a massive firefighting effort. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
Steve Surgeon surveys the ruins after he lost everything he owned except his home in a wildfire on the outskirts of Okanogan, Wash., Sunday, Aug. 23, 2015. He said he stayed as the fire raced over a ridge and barreled down toward his home, flames lapping just feet from his back porch. Surgeon estimates he lost more than $100,000 worth of property, including his shop, his motorcycle, several cars, a travel trailer, and all of his tools.(AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
A photo, shot from a drone, shows the scene of a recycling yard, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, in Middletown, Calif. where a body was found in the burned ruins, bringing the death toll to five from two of the most destructive wildfires in the state in recent memory. Official identification had not yet been made but authorities said the body is presumed to be that of Bruce Bevins Burns. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)
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I had been covering the fire for much of the week and was planning to head back out to scout for more stories. So I grabbed my map and said, "Show me where your house is. I'll swing by while I'm out there."

Ross, 76, circled a spot off Big Canyon Road and tapped it twice with the pen.

After about 10 miles of navigating twisting roads and dodging downed power lines, I came to his dirt driveway. It was another quarter-mile to his house. I didn't have a good feeling, thinking of all the homes burned to their foundations and the five days his animals had been alone.

Unbelievably, his home was unscathed, the earth charred all around it where firefighters had beat back the flames.

Two horses grazed on hay in the yard. The alpacas stared at me from their pen. Goats scurried about like nothing had happened.

But there was no sign of Thumper, Ross' elderly 70-pound Labrador.

I walked around clapping and whistling and calling out, "Thumper!? Come on, girl!"

Nothing. I feared the worst as I walked the property for another hour, eventually crouching down and putting some crackers in my hand, whistling and calling out Thumper's name.

Thumper emerged from a crawlspace, covered in ash and soot, darting toward me — her tail wagging, her tongue flopping. She leaped into my lap, licked my face, then rolled over on her back as I rubbed her belly and I cried.

"Good girl, Thumper!" I kept telling her. "You made it!"

I immediately called Ross.

"Your house is OK. Your animals are fine, and I've got Thumper!" I shouted.

There was momentary silence on the line, and then Ross began repeating: "I can't believe it. I can't believe it."

"I'm bringing her to you right now," I said. I hoisted her into the back seat of my rental car and sped toward town while she panted heavily and looked confused.

As I pulled into a gas station parking lot, Ross sat on a curb smoking a cigarette. I yelled out the window, "We're here!"

He looked up in a daze. I barely had the back door open when Thumper pushed her way out and ran toward him, her entire body wagging now.

It was a moment of pure joy.

"I dreamed last night the house was burning down, and I could hear her screaming as she burned," he told me after giving me a big hug.

"I can't believe it," Ross repeated, rubbing Thumper's belly. He looked at me, grateful tears in his eyes.

For now, he remains a man without a home, living out of his car, but at least he has some peace of mind knowing his house is still standing and Thumper is by his side.


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