September 20, 2015 - 6:00 AM
MIDDLETOWN, Calif. - Lawrence Ross looked beat, his head hanging and his eyes bloodshot five days after fleeing his home in the path of a wall of flames.
Ross showed up at a high school in the small Northern California town of Lower Lake, where authorities were escorting residents briefly into the evacuation zone to inspect their homes and check on pets and livestock. They had not let residents return since the fire erupted Saturday about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash.
When told officials were no longer letting residents in at all, not even with escorts, Ross sighed heavily, shook his head and fought back tears. "I think my house is OK, but I don't know, and my dog is there, and my goats and horses and alpacas," he told me. "My dog, my dog."
I had been covering the fire for much of the week and was planning to head back out to scout for more stories. So I grabbed my map and said, "Show me where your house is. I'll swing by while I'm out there."
Ross, 76, circled a spot off Big Canyon Road and tapped it twice with the pen.
After about 10 miles of navigating twisting roads and dodging downed power lines, I came to his dirt driveway. It was another quarter-mile to his house. I didn't have a good feeling, thinking of all the homes burned to their foundations and the five days his animals had been alone.
Unbelievably, his home was unscathed, the earth charred all around it where firefighters had beat back the flames.
Two horses grazed on hay in the yard. The alpacas stared at me from their pen. Goats scurried about like nothing had happened.
But there was no sign of Thumper, Ross' elderly 70-pound Labrador.
I walked around clapping and whistling and calling out, "Thumper!? Come on, girl!"
Nothing. I feared the worst as I walked the property for another hour, eventually crouching down and putting some crackers in my hand, whistling and calling out Thumper's name.
Thumper emerged from a crawlspace, covered in ash and soot, darting toward me — her tail wagging, her tongue flopping. She leaped into my lap, licked my face, then rolled over on her back as I rubbed her belly and I cried.
"Good girl, Thumper!" I kept telling her. "You made it!"
I immediately called Ross.
"Your house is OK. Your animals are fine, and I've got Thumper!" I shouted.
There was momentary silence on the line, and then Ross began repeating: "I can't believe it. I can't believe it."
"I'm bringing her to you right now," I said. I hoisted her into the back seat of my rental car and sped toward town while she panted heavily and looked confused.
As I pulled into a gas station parking lot, Ross sat on a curb smoking a cigarette. I yelled out the window, "We're here!"
He looked up in a daze. I barely had the back door open when Thumper pushed her way out and ran toward him, her entire body wagging now.
It was a moment of pure joy.
"I dreamed last night the house was burning down, and I could hear her screaming as she burned," he told me after giving me a big hug.
"I can't believe it," Ross repeated, rubbing Thumper's belly. He looked at me, grateful tears in his eyes.
For now, he remains a man without a home, living out of his car, but at least he has some peace of mind knowing his house is still standing and Thumper is by his side.
News from © The Associated Press, 2015