A dog that was separated from its owner last August when the Caldor Fire swept towards South Lake Tahoe was reunited with him after a skier spotted the dog in deep snow last month and launched an intensive rescue operation.
Russ, a Pit Bull Terrier mix, ran away from his owner’s vehicle last summer when his owner was visiting the Tahoe area looking for a job, according to a Facebook post from Tahoe PAWS and TLC 4 Furry Friends, who non-profit organization involved in dog rescue in late December. The owner had to be evacuated due to the fire in Caldor after looking for the dog and reporting it missing to Animal Service officials.
“Russ was believed to be lost for good,” Furry Friends officials said on Facebook.
But on December 16, Furry Friends executive director Wendy Jones was made aware of a Facebook post by a man who was skiing in the “backcountry” west of South Lake Tahoe and saw the dog in the snow, Leona Allen said , 61, one of Russ’ rescuers. The dog growled at him, but the man snapped some pictures and shared the encounter on Facebook.
Jones asked Allen – a veteran animal tracker who volunteers with Furry Friends and is a seasonal firefighter for the US Forest Service – to search the area. Allen arrived in the area in the late afternoon when temperatures were set to climb to minus 2 degrees Fahrenheit by evening, with about five feet of fresh snow on the ground.
Without proper equipment, El Dorado County Animal Service officials were unable to access the area where the dog was last seen, which was under a tree on a steep section of mountain, Allen said. With snowshoes on her feet, Allen climbed the steep terrain and followed the dog tracks up a hill, soon followed by her volunteer partner Elsa Gaule.
“I looked into my headlamp and saw that dark blob in the snow under the tree well and thought, ‘Oh my god, it’s the dog and he’s no longer alive,” Allen told The Chronicle on Saturday. “So I went to, and suddenly he opened his eyes and lifted his head and I screamed. It was just involuntary. “
Gaule hauled an animal service sled up the hill and won Russ’ trust “instantly,” Allen said. Without Russ’ trust in Gaule, Allen said, the rescue would not have been possible. Gaule suggested everyone get on the sledge with Russ on her lap. The couple snapped photos of each other with Russ to commemorate the rescue, with photos showing Gaule covering Russ with a green blanket and Allen and Russ on board the sled wrapped in the blanket.
“We laughed so much, No. 1, because the dog was still alive, but No. 2, we laughed at our situation,” said Allen, recalling the approximately two-hour hike down the mountain to meet with officials from the animal service. “Elsa called it ‘moonlight tobogganing’. That sounds a bit more romantic than it is. “
At some point, Allen said, Gaule took the trembling soot in her arms and carried the dog to Kyle Shumaker, an El Dorado County Animal Service officer, who was waiting for them. Everyone took off their own down jacket so Russ could stay warm as the stacks of blankets were soaked by the time the trio reached the officers.
Russ was in good health, Allen said, and within days he was reunited with his family who live in Riverside County. Before Russ was reunited, Allen said she and Gaule visited him every day at a Meyers animal control facility in El Dorado County. Russ can be seen on Allen’s lap in photos taken at the facility. Furry Friends said Russ’ microchip helped officers connect the dog to the owner.
Furry Friends officials said, “When contacted, the owner was delighted to find out his dog was alive!”
“As a rescue organization … we should do that,” said Allen. “I’ve done some pretty gnarled rescues, this is probably the top. I keep reliving the moment when he opened his eyes and lifted his head and just the joy and exhilaration in me was overwhelming. It is another life that can be lived happily, warmly and safely. “
Lauren Hernández is a contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @ByLHernandez