As California Wildfire Neared, A Family Raced To Save Its Animals
Samantha Hull had less than 30 minutes to pack up her life.
As powerful winds drove the Tick Fire through acres of dry brush hills encircling Hull's family's farm in Canyon Country, a community within the Los Angeles County city of Santa Clarita, Hull was thinking about how she could get her animals to safety.
Hull, 24, and her partner, Sammi Lanthier, 29, were living on the small farm, affectionately nicknamed "La Granja" ("farm" in Spanish). It sat atop a canyon and was home to about 80 animals, including dogs, birds and livestock. Hull and Lanthier raised a sheep named Gwen by bottle and set up an oasis for their birds over the years.
But on Oct. 24, a devastating wildfire broke out in Southern California, forcing some 50,000 residents to evacuate. Since the Tick Fire started, it has scorched more than 4,600 acres and damaged more than 70 homes and buildings. A week later, the blaze was 94% contained.
When the flames charged up the hills, engulfing their home, Hull and Lanthier were able to rescue only 20 animals, including Gwen and Cupid, their 100-pound pot-bellied pig.
Hull would watch her home of three years burn to the ground.
That afternoon, Hull had been at work in Valencia, about a 20-minute drive from the farm, when a co-worker received a warning on her phone that emergency services were responding to a fire in Tick Canyon. The canyon is just 5 miles from Hull's farm.
She raced home to corral as many of her animals as she could and get them into a van. She then took the first of many perilous trips. Despite the 3 p.m. daylight, the smoky air and a power shutoff exacerbated the mission. Because of the high-wind forecast, Southern California Edison had preemptively turned off the electricity as a preventive measure to reduce the risk that the power company equipment might ignite another fire.
"We were running through a pitch-black house trying to grab animals," Hull said.
By about 3:30, the house had caught fire. The family left behind most personal belongings.
Hull and Lanthier are now staying with Hull's father indefinitely in Palmdale, Calif., less than an hour away.
On Wednesday, Hull returned to the farm to look for her missing dog, Casey. Rubble dominated the scene.
"I feel so detached," she said, noting that she has become increasingly aware of the fire risks posed to the arid grass valleys of Southern California.
Hull said she had been preparing for a fire emergency since last year. "I've been looking to move to a place outside of this hill," she said. "It feels like a lot of this is preventable."
Hull said she had queued up kennels and animal crates in case of such a fire emergency. None of those resources had arrived at the property before the flames took over.
Hull says she didn't hear about the evacuation orders until 5:30 p.m., about an hour after they were issued. By then, the flames had already engulfed her house.
Hull is still reeling from the escape. Her anxiety in the aftermath has driven her to take multiple trips to the doctor.
"I've had panic attacks all week," she said, "just from not knowing if we're ever going to be safe again."
She says she has fire insurance, but "It's not going to bring back my dog."
Hull and Lanthier had hoped to buy their own place soon, although their options seem to be narrowing in California. Living far from the threat of wildfires and close to their animals is at the front of their minds.
Allison Zaucha is a photojournalist based in Los Angeles.
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