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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

'We'll be back soon': pets and owners separated by California wildfires

Shelters take care of animals as owners try to rebuild their lives

Steve Cox pets and cuddles Ernie, his 10-year-old English bulldog, before leaving him at a shelter. He lost his home in California's devastating wildfires, and now they have to part.

"Don't you worry Ernie. I am not gonna let you down. We'll come back for you," Mr Cox whispers.

He has been staying at a hotel but it does not allow pets. For a week, Mr Cox tried to take care of Ernie in the back of his pickup truck.

But now, as he tries to get his life back on track, Mr Cox thinks Ernie would get better care at one of three animal shelters in northern California's Paradise area where the so-called Camp Fire has claimed at least 76 lives. More than 1,000 people are missing.

In this rural area, which had many horses, one shelter is for large animals.

There are two smaller shelters where helpers are taking care of dogs, cats, chickens, rabbits, turtles and even swans.

Ernie is walking with a bit of trouble after an operation on an abscess in one of his front legs. Mr Cox says the dog is lazy, so he thinks Ernie will adapt quickly to the separation by sleeping a lot.

The main shelter was set up in the city of Chico's airport, near Paradise, where rescue and firefighting operations are based.

Animals saved by firefighters are dropped off there to be cared for.

One woman arrives in a desperate state, her hands trembling. She pulls out an envelope of photos of her cats and dogs.

"Please, let me in and see. I might find them," she begs.

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When the fire began to threaten Paradise, Mr Cox was returning home from the doctor with his wife. He could have stopped but instead kept going, to rescue Ernie and two other smaller dogs he has.

"They are family. I couldn't just leave them. We had 10 minutes to leave," he recalls.

Mr Cox, who lived there since 1973, said he lost two houses in the blaze which virtually wiped the entire community from the map.

"I have a big question mark above my head. I don't know what I'll do," he says, his face showing exhaustion.

The animal shelters are working with dozens of volunteers responsible for feeding, caring for and walking the animals.

They also have volunteer veterinary technicians, including Marshall Riddle, who are responsible for treating them.

Many animals arrived at the shelters injured and burnt.

"It's never easy, but we have to make sure every animal is safe," he says.

The most worrying cases were sent to specialised clinics.

Although these are not the first shelters of their kind in a state regularly ravaged by wildfires, the blazes have never been so deadly.

"Butte County is always on fire," says Karen Falconer of the North Valley Animal Disaster Group, which runs another of the shelters from an old hospital in the town of Oroville.

There are about 430 animals, separated into zones. The dog section is full of barking but the cat zone is quieter.

"We'll take care of them as long as necessary," Ms Falconer says.