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January 11-17, 2006

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Mud and Ashes

Pet advocate finds herself—and her animals—out of a flood, into a fire and out of a home

By Lois Pearlman

When Lori Nickel tells people that she lost her house to a fire during the New Year's Day flood, the response is usually a quizzical, "Your house burned down during a flood?"

Strange as it seems, Nickel and her two housemates watched from a road perched some 50 feet above the home site as firefighters struggled in vain on Jan. 1 to save the Monte Rio home where she had lived for 19 years.

With the swollen Russian River already flooding 10 to 15 feet deep in Nickel's neighborhood, firefighters had to paddle their way to the fire when they received the call at 1:30pm on New Year's Day.

According to Monte Rio fire chief Steve Baxman, he and two other firefighters thought they had initially knocked the blaze down, but they had to return a few hours later when it flared up again. By this time, flames had spread into the attic and the situation was out of control. An explosion from a pocket of escaped gas blasted Baxman out of the house, and live electrical wires dangled onto the firefighters' heads and shoulders.

Because the turn-off valves for the electricity and propane were underwater, it was impossible to shut down the utilities. Baxman decided it was time to leave. "What are you going to do when you're in 14 feet of water and you can't reach the utilities?" he says rhetorically.

Fortunately, the Monte Rio Fire Department had stashed an engine on an "island" that remains above the water level during flood times and the firefighters were able to run a hose to create a curtain of water spray to protect a neighboring house.

But the good news for Nickel, founder of the Wild, Abandoned, Indigent Fund for animals (WAIF), is that everybody, including her two dozen foster animals, were safe. They had all evacuated to higher ground on New Year's Eve.

"We knew the flood was coming. We have lived there through four floods, two of them major ones that got into the house, and so we knew the dangers. We had food, water, dog and cat food in waterproof containers. We were sleeping in the cars. We had a portable chemical toilet. Our neighbors had a boat. We had a shelter for the animals. We were fine. The animals would have been fine for a week. We could have set up a tent. Even if the house had been ruined by the flood, we could have all stayed on the property."

But now, instead of pulling up the muddy carpets and hosing off the furniture as she had done after past floods, Nickel is searching for homes for foster "babies."

She says people can sleep on a neighbor's sofa when they lose their home in a flood, but for animals, it's a different story. For now, Nickel has stashed 18 cats at the Guerneville Veterinary Clinic, where she works as a receptionist, and is paying to keep her three dogs in a private kennel. But time and money are running out, even with donations from friends, and she is worried about what will happen to her beloved animals.

"I'm taking it a cat at a time and a heartbreak at a time. I'll let any of them go to a good home, even the dogs. I'll worry about what I'm going to do after the animals are situated."

The irony in all this is that Nickel started WAIF in 1999 to help pet owners who couldn't afford emergency veterinary care and as a way to help find homes for abandoned cats and dogs. The lower Russian River-based organization raises money through annual events, including a haunted house that Nickel hosted at her home, and through pet sitting.

"When I started working at the vet clinic, I noticed the humongous amount of people in desperate need for their animals with limited or no income. We tried to cover what didn't get covered through other funds. In emergencies, if people don't have money, their only choice is to lose their animals," she says.

In addition to helping people keep their pets, Nickel was able to foster abandoned animals at her home in Monte Rio. She has a good working relationship with her landlord, whom she calls "one of the best people I have ever met." But Nickel fears that she won't be able to return to the property any time soon.

"The house was rebuilt in seven or eight months after the '86 flood. But after a fire, it's different," she says, citing her expectation that such a rebuild is a far lengthier process. "The animals can't bounce around for two or three years."

For more details, call the Guerneville Veterinary Clinic, 707.869.0688.

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