Oct 11, 2013 11:53 AM by Associated Press

Raccoon survives wildfire with help from humans

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) - A tiny raccoon's sheer determination and will to survive the Yarnell Hill wildfire offers an inspiration to all those struggling to recover from the devastating disaster.

The young adult female wandered into a Yarnell couple's home three weeks after the wildfire exploded into town June 30. All its paws and lower legs were burned.

"Typically, given its condition, it's something we would euthanize right away," conceded Mike Demlong, wildlife education program manager for the Arizona Game and Fish Department. "Because it came from the Yarnell Hill fire and had such a rough time, we decided to give it a second chance."

A baby golden eagle wasn't so lucky; wildlife officials believe it likely died trying to leave its nest too early because of the heavy smoke of the wildfire. Mule deer and javelina were found suffocated in the Glen Isla neighborhood where most of the homes burned.

"Obviously the wildfire was so fast, so horrendous that not much survived," Demlong said. At times, fire investigators estimate the flame front was moving at 10-12 miles per hour, at least four times the speed of other fast-moving wildfires, because of a rare monsoon outflow.

The unexpected speed of the fire and its changing direction led to the death of 19 of Prescott's Granite Mountain Hotshots that fateful day.

But the raccoon somehow survived, and she took hard hold of her second chance.

"It's something to give the community a reason to cheer," Demlong said. "Maybe through their actions, (the Hotshots) somehow helped save this raccoon."

The raccoon lost the tips of her ears, all of her toes, her foot pads, and fur on her feet and lower legs. Veterinarian Michael Kiedrowski, who has performed countless free surgeries on injured Arizona wildlife, operated on her three times in July and August. Her pain will stop when her wounds have healed, but she won't be able to return to the wild because of her injuries, he said.

"She just needs some loving care more than anything else," he said.

The raccoon lived at the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center during her surgeries and rehabilitation.

"I hope this will be an important part of the healing process in the mountain communities that were so sadly affected by this fire," Adobe Mountain Director Sandy Cate said.

The raccoon now has a new home at the Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary in Prescott.

"Pam is just a wonderful partner being willing to give this raccoon a lifetime home," Demlong said of Heritage Park Director Pam McLaren.

The sanctuary plans to conduct a naming contest for the raccoon.

"I think the community should have the opportunity to continue the healing process from the fire and hotshots' death," McLaren said.

The raccoon is living in the zoo's education animal building while her wounds continue to heal. People can see her through a window when she's not sleeping, although she often naps during the day because raccoons are nocturnal.

The non-profit sanctuary is seeking donations to help build her a heated sleeping area when she moves outdoors, because of her lack of leg fur.

No one is happier that the raccoon survived than Christine and Leon Smith, who were the first to help it on July 22.

"I'm just so pleased they did save her," Leon said. "She meant a lot to us in the short time we had her."

The couple had been leaving the back door of their house open for the cats that were homeless after the Yarnell Hill wildfire. Sometimes the cats would come into the basement where Leon has an office.

Leon was going out to feed the cats July 22 when he heard a scratching noise. He called Christine in to see what he found hiding behind the washing machine.

"There was this little animal there all wet and shivering and shaking and cowering," Christine recalled.

"I could tell she was hurt because it looked like blood stains on the concrete floor," Leon said. He had seen blood earlier that day on his patio, too.

The couple decided to leave the raccoon alone to rest in the basement while they tried to find help for it. The Game and Fish Department directed them to its nearest wildlife rehab volunteer, B.J. Dorman in Wickenburg.

B.J. arrived the next morning with a portable cage and two nets. Leon was away from the house. Christine held the cage while B.J. tried to gently scoop the raccoon into the cage without hurting it more.

"He didn't even turn around," Dorman said. "He had his little face turned around toward the wall. He was making noise, trying to be vicious, because he was just so terrified."

Dorman took the raccoon home overnight before bringing it to the vet.

"She's definitely a fighter," Dorman said. "I can't begin to imagine what she went through for the three weeks before she was rescued.

"The mere fact that she escaped through the terrifying flames, successfully hid from predators when she could barely walk on her severely burned and infected little legs, and was able to inexplicably scavenge for food and water - it's nothing less than a miracle."

The raccoon is a bright spot in the trauma of the wildfire, Christine said.

"Stories like that really do help now," Christine said. "When I talk about the little raccoon, its definitely uplifting for me.

"I think she symbolizes something," Christine said.


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