BOOKS: Operation Pet Rescue: Survivors of the Oakland, California Firestorm

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 1994:

Operation Pet Rescue: Survivors of the
Oakland, California Firestorm, by Gregory
N. Zampolis. J.N. Townsend Publishing (12
Greenleaf Drive, Exeter, NH 03833), 1994. 170
pages. $21.00 hardback.
This was a book I couldn’t put down! It held per-
sonal associations for me, a resident of Berkeley––adjoining
Oakland––during the 1991 fire and aftermath it describes.
Berkeley too sustained major fire losses. I was there as well
for the fire of 1970, which also razed many homes, fueled by
dry eucalyptus, and heard many times of my mother-in-law’s
flight, on foot, firstborn in a perambulator, from the 1923
fire that threatened to annihilate town and campus. Moreover,
as I read, a forest fire raged a little over a hour’s drive away
from me in Washington state.

Aside from personal associations, we all thrill to
stories of ordinary folk with animals like our own, who when
hit by calamity rise to unexpected heights of bravery, persis-
tence, sacrifice, and compassion. Zampolis is writing true
stories, with actual names, including those of the persons
whose jobs or avocations sent them to the scene to care for
the animal victims, where they stayed, and remain, helping
the occasional animal who still turns up. No file is closed
without some definite word as to the animal’s fate.
How did so many animals get separated from their
owners? First, this was a very large fire in a densely populat-
ed area. It was an affluent area, where many families owned
a number of pets. The fire got out of hand on a weekday
afternoon when many residents were away at work or school.
When they tried to return, streets were already impassible,
ablaze or cordoned off to allow unimpeded firefighting, pre-
vent looting, and prevent human loss. Nonetheless, some
pet owners dared attempt to go in and remove their animals,
only to discover them missing, having fled from locked
rooms somehow, or hiding and too terrorized to be found.
Some survived under incredible circumstances, in culverts
beneath the inferno, floating in a flooded elevator shaft, etc.
After the fire, constant patrols brought food and water and
tried to trap animals for medical care, identification and hold-
ing. Catching the wilier animals often took months.
Why was it so difficult to reunite owners and pets?
Aside from the number of owners who were dead, disabled,
or had nowhere to take their pets, nor any means of searching
for them while in strictly temporary billets, there was the
sheer number of places to look. Every veterinary hospital
held its share of rescues, with vets unconcerned about poten-
tial payment. Most worked too hard with the sudden
onslaught of pet problems to have time for painstaking
descriptions, and there were many untagged pets, tags with
obsolete information, and added to the ineptness to some per-
sons’ descriptions, especially under stress, there were burned
and discolored coats that concealed special markings, as well
as animals who managed to get so far away that it was ques-
tioned if they really were from the fire zone. Moreover,
some animal lovers who rescued or took in strays did not
want to turn them in at shelters because word had not reached
them all that the shelters had suspended their usual rules
about mandatory euthanasia of animals unclaimed after a cer-
tain number of days. These Samaritans did not envision own-
ers going depserately to shelters and not finding their animals;
instead, they nursed the animals and posted little notes on
bulletin boards.
In the end, there was bad news for many, but
Zampolis concentrates on the joy of families whose reunions
came after hope failed, or after long, loyal heedlessness of
proability. You want miracles? He describes many.
Zampolis’ narrative is both skillful and gripping.
Not only the heroes and rescue workers but also the many
individuals and families and pets whose stories he tells are
named and characterized. The threads of each story are
detailed, with no ends left hanging. He describes the fire as it
advances, block by block and indeed house by house. He
follows the aftermath searches, and the sad cases where
reunions were followed by a second and final loss of the
frightened animal. Zampolis points out that animals who
have been through such trauma rarely maintain the same per-
sonality. He also notes the human trauma involved, explain-
ing why volunteer rescuers declined relief, feeling that vic-
tims were helped by seeing familiar faces as they made their
rounds of the rescue organizations. Those of us whose offers
to help were refused now know why.
There are also poignant vignettes about the big dog
who had to be dragged from certain death beside his mistress’
body, and the little cat, Mr. Fox, who emerged from hiding
only when friends of the owner thought to place a tape
recorder in the ashes of his former home, playing the cat’s
favorite selections from Pavarotti.
The author would like us to learn from this disaster
how to prepare and so mitigate suffering in the future. A
good way to start would be to form a personal disaster plan,
for emergency escape from one’s own home, not forgetting
plans for all pets.
––Phyllis Clifton
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