Clare Nicholson remembers standing outside her home in August, talking with a neighbor about flames that had just erupted in their Carmel Valley neighborhood. The fire was moving swiftly, so she decided to evacuate. Nicholson was on crutches after breaking her leg, but she went in and gathered what she could with the help of her youngest daughter.
Outside, trees exploded, and smoke darkened the skies.
“It looked like bombs being dropped,” says Nicholson. “Within those few minutes, the fire was coming down the mountainside…My 12-year-old, who is brilliant, ran around and grabbed some photo albums. She grabbed one of the cats, but he jumped straight out of the car. I had my two dogs, and our other three cats bolted.”
Armed with just some medical supplies, a few important papers and meaningful keepsakes that her youngest gathered on behalf of her two older sisters, Nicholson fled with her daughter and the dogs.
“Days later, when I spoke with my neighbor who had stayed behind, he said my house had burnt down within 15 minutes,” she says, “It happened so quickly that the fire engines couldn’t even get out there.”
The neighbor also mentioned that he’d noticed two of Nicholson’s cats near a burned-out van on her property. Firefighters had spotted them, too. They alerted the SPCA for Monterey County, and the rescue team sent vehicle photos to the organization’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, Beth Brookhouser.
“I could just make out that it was a plumbing van, and I could faintly make out the logo, but I couldn’t see anything else,” says Brookhouser.
She did some online sleuthing and tracked down the plumber, who put her in touch with Nicholson. Bubs, the family’s 4-month-old kitten, had badly burned feet and was being treated by SPCA veterinarians. Mango, an older cat, survived the blaze without serious injury.
When Nicholson visited her property several days after the fire, she heard another cat crying.
“I couldn’t quite find where she was, and I had a broken leg, so it was hard for me to move around the rubble. But then she stuck her head out and limped towards me with her little foot all bent over. Oh my gosh, did I cry when I saw her,” says Nicholson.
Griz was dehydrated after 10 days on her own, and she had mild burns on her feet. The SPCA took her in for treatment beside the Nicholson’s other two cats. While the family ultimately lost Bubs’ brother, Grubs, to the fire, they welcomed the remaining three cats back into their temporary Carmel home a few weeks later.
Bubs wore bandages as his wounds healed, but that didn’t stop him from swatting at fish that flashed across the screen of Nicholson’s phone.
“The SPCA team got him into that game, and it’s so sweet. While he was getting treated, someone there took him home every weekend because his bandages needed changing so frequently,” says Nicholson.
She praises a long list of fire crews, local organizations and community members for providing assistance after the blaze—from Happy Girl Kitchen, which delivered fresh, organic food to fire victims, to the Rotary members who assembled relief packages, to the friends who launched a GoFundMe campaign for the Nicholson family. The SPCA, however, occupies a special place on that list.
“They were so accommodating and fantastic, saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’re going to look after the cats. We’ll keep them for as long as you need.’ They provided all that care for free. I can’t imagine how expensive treatments would have been if I’d had to take the cats to a vet, especially with the burn work that they did,” says Nicholson. “All that love and care and support the SPCA gave the cats and my family is just absolutely amazing. I would hope that people will see the value of what they do and donate.”
The local SPCA was setting service records in early 2020, before a pandemic and three wildfires swept across Monterey County. In early March, as organizers wrapped up the annual SPCA telethon, COVID-19 shifted the organization’s focus.
“We were live on KSBW, and between donation pleas, we watched the news about an outbreak in Seattle. The stock market took a huge hit. I vividly remember at the end of the night, when we’re usually hugging and high-fiving and celebrating, we paused and realized that maybe we shouldn’t hug it out this time,” says Brookhouser. “The next week, we went into shelter-in-place.”
Even COVID couldn’t derail the SPCA’s success, however. The organization expected pandemic-related job cuts and economic uncertainty to trigger an influx in homeless animals. Instead, shelters nationwide reported spiking adoption rates.
“People saw the benefit of having an animal to share their heart and their home with. Even today, we have very few animals available for adoption,” says Brookhouser.
She and the SPCA team again jumped into action on August 16, when lightning sparked the River Fire. The organization’s Highway 68 facility filled with evacuated pets, and families with horses, goats, emu and other large species were directed to overflow shelters established at the Marina Equestrian Center and Salinas Rodeo grounds.
Within three days, the Carmel Fire and Dolan Fire also ignited.
“Demand more than doubled, and our team was suddenly on the road 24 hours a day,”
With hundreds more animals in need of shelter, the SPCA opened additional evacuation centers in Salinas, King City, Marina and Mon-terey. More than 130 staffers and volunteers did their best to maintain proper coronavirus-prevention protocols while serving the public.
As they assisted residents fleeing the wildfires, several members of the SPCA team were forced from their own homes. They coordinated disaster response efforts from hotel rooms and the spare bedrooms of family and friends. By August 22, with flames moving toward the organization’s main location, SPCA officials decided to vacate their own facility, as well.
“We’ve been at that property since the late 1960s, and we’ve never had to evacuate,” says Brookhouser. “We never had an official evacuation order, but we had more than 500 animals at our shelter. We didn’t want to risk leaving any animals behind or risk the lives of our staff and volunteers.”
The SPCA quickly expanded its presence at the Monterey County Fair & Event Center, separating horses, chickens, dogs, exotic pets and other species into venues across the grounds. Team members worked from the fairgrounds for four days, and then slowly reunited owners with animals and resumed normal operations at the Monterey-Salinas Highway shelter.
As of early October, the SPCA continued to accommodate 30 pets for owners who had lost their homes or sustained too much property damage to safely house their animals. Com-munity members pay nothing for fire-related evacuation assistance, sheltering services or veterinary care provided by the nonprofit.
“All of that is completely made possible by our donors, who were overwhelmingly generous during these fires. Whatever we asked for, whether it was monetary donations or pet food or hay or halters, the community responded,” says Brookhouser.
Animal welfare organizations from San Diego, Butte County and elsewhere also assisted local response teams. That support was invaluable as three major fires burned in Monterey County, and flames scorched other California destinations.
“The scale was probably the biggest challenge. We took in over 1,400 animals, and resources were spread so thin. Past fires have been large, but they happened in more contained areas and impacted a smaller portion of the community,” says Brookhouser. “They say it takes a village, but this response definitely took the whole state and beyond.”
As SPCA representatives outline their 2021 goals, they encourage Monterey County households to update emergency kits and disaster response plans. Citizens can also help the organization prepare for future incidents by making a financial donation.
“Donations make a big difference, not only to cover the expenses of fires like these, but also to plan for the future. With such big burn scars, there are concerns about mudslides and flooding,” says Brookhouser. “We live in a beautiful place, but we’re prone to disasters like wildfires and earthquakes. We want to continue to be prepared for whatever comes our way.”
To learn more about the SPCA for Monterey County, or to support the organization’s rescue and response work, please visit www.spcamc.org.