Chris Smith: Middletown vet Jeff Smith a hero to animals after Valley fire

Human grandeur and agony co-exist in the disaster zone that before last Saturday was the parched but welcoming greater Middletown.

When the ordinary Lake County weekend turned hellish, Dr. Jeff Smith switched to survival mode. Once he saw that his Middletown Animal Hospital hadn't burned, the veterinarian; his son, Connor, 19; and a friend of Connor's set out to check devastated areas for pets and ranch animals.

They found many, and they witnessed scenes of fire-borne destruction that sucked the air from their lungs.

'Even the pictures can't deliver the impact of standing in some of the places we've stood in,' Smith said.

Coordinating since early last week with the California Veterinary Medical Association, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and several local and regional animal-welfare groups, Smith transformed his animal hospital into a front-line medical crisis center.

'We've treated a ton of burned animals, homeless animals, dehydrated animals,' he said. The strategy at the MASH unit that his hospital has become is to stabilize the animals and move them to participating animal-care facilities.

Smith, who responded also to the 2008 Paradise fire in Butte County, said the past week's rescue and treatment operation went very well for the most part.

An unfortunate exception, he said, was having Lake County Animal Care & Control officials tell him he's not authorized to do what he's doing, and attempt to take control of the mission mounted by him and the Veterinary Medical Association and the other partners.

'This is my town and my clinic and my property,' Smith said. 'We have a well functioning team. We didn't really think we need to get permission' from county Animal Control.

The vet views the power struggle as an unfortunate hindrance. He said he's willing to work with the county agency, but 'I don't want them taking over the chain of command.'

As Smith and his staff and his family toil on behalf of animals injured or sent running in terror by the Valley fire, some of his admirers are seeking donations to help cover some costs of the large-scale operation.

Julie Atwood of Sonoma Valley invites donations at any Wells Fargo Bank branch to the Support Middletown Vet Hospital' fund. Atwood also has created a GoFundMe account you can find by clicking here.

On Facebook, two vets, John Madigan of UC Davis and Jay Kerr of the California Veterinary Medical Reserve Corps, laud Smith for his 'selfless generosity' and say he deserves help paying for all that he's doing for the animals.

SPEAKING OF SUCH THINGS, it was death-defying what Cheryl Johnston and two neighbors did to save eight horses at Hidden Valley Lake.

All three humans might easily have perished, the horses, too, when a tendril of the Valley fire enveloped them at a stable high up the hill at the lakeside community near Middletown. It happened late in the day last Saturday.

'It was a tornado of fire,' Johnston said. 'The houses on the ridge all around us were blowing up.'

She and fellow equestrians Butch and Pam Burr hadn't sensed the full ferocity of the inferno when, instead of immediately evacuating Hidden Valley Lake, they drove toward the flames to attempt to put their horses in trailers or at least move them from open paddocks to the community's steel-roofed horse barn.

When flames encircled the barn and licked at a tree alongside it, the trio went to war.

Unfurling an old fire hose and turning on the water to every available garden hose, they braved the intense heat to douse the barn's roof and the tree, and every new spot of flame in the grass and vegetation.

'It was a blessing we couldn't get out,' said Johnston. She figures that had she and Burrs tried to escape, they would have to have left the horses and they might well not have survived the drive toward Middletown.

Johnston spent that entire first night of the fire at the barn. It was still short of dawn when she lay on the floor and fell asleep to the sounds of the calming horses and a slight pattering of rain on the metal roof.

Chris Smith is at 521-5211 and On Twitter @CJSPD.

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