A California family thought their dog had died in the fires, but she was waiting for them
Jack Weaver and his brother-in-law Patrick Widen were panting and out of breath as they hiked up the last hill before reaching Weaver's mother's home in Santa Rosa last week.
They had been hiking for about three miles, desperately trying to reach the home to determine exactly what was left of it after wildfires swept through the area. More importantly, they needed to find out if Izzy, the family's 9-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog, had by "some miracle" survived, Widen's wife, Beckyjean Widen, said on Facebook. They decided to capture what they saw on video.
"I can see the vineyards," Weaver said in the video, which was shared on Facebook and has now been viewed more than 1.7 million times. His voice sounded exhausted as he neared the home. He tried to get the first glimpses of the property. "The anticipation is killing me."
The previous day, on Oct. 9, Weaver's parents had awakened with their home enveloped in flames. They had seconds to leave. And in the midst of fleeing the inferno, Izzy ran away from them.
"My mom couldn't chase after her without risking her own life," Widen wrote on Facebook. To get to safety, she said, the couple "had to drive through walls of flames and across a burning wooden bridge."
As fires continued to burn across California wine country, the Weavers - like thousands of other displaced families - wondered what had become of their home. They were convinced they had lost everything. But they were most devastated with the thought of losing Izzy, Widen said.
So the day after the Weavers evacuated their home, Jack Weaver and Patrick Widen decided to make the trek to visit his parent's home. "They were turned away by police officers, but if you know my brother Jack or husband Patrick . . . neither one likes to be told no," Beckyjean Widen wrote on Facebook.
As they approached the property, Jack Weaver noticed the gate was still standing, he is heard saying in the video. He swore as he took in the scene in front of him.
"I don't see the house," he said. "I had my hopes up."
He saw the remains of a wall. Aside from that? "Nothing," he said. "It's gone."
"There's so much smoke I can't show you the view," he said in the video.
The brothers in law began clapping and whistling, calling out for Izzy, wondering if maybe, at least Izzy had made it.
They noticed some property had been spared - the vineyards, a tractor.
Suddenly, they saw movement up ahead.
"Izzy is here!" Weaver is heard saying frantically. "Izzy, Izzy, come here baby, Izzy!"
The Bernese Mountain Dog is seen walking toward them, wagging her tail.
In the background, Patrick Widen's voice can be heard wavering, cracking, overcome with emotion.
"Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god," he cried out.
Izzy was still covered in ashes, and smelled like soot, the brothers in law told NBC News. But otherwise the dog was fine. A veterinarian said she was likely insulated from the heat of the blaze by her thick fur coat, the Associated Press reported. She was panting, and visibly stressed, but Izzy did not panic, Weaver said.
"She was very happy to see us," Weaver told the AP. "She's such a brave dog."
After all, Izzy is a two-time cancer survivor, the family told NBC News.
Eventually, Weaver was able to break through shoddy cellphone reception to tell the news to his mother. She was staying with relatives in the San Francisco Bay area at the time.
"She just lost it," Weaver told the AP. "She went from being devastated about losing her home to the being the happiest person I've ever seen. I couldn't get home fast enough. She was really, really happy . . . She's still shaken up by the whole thing, but she's in much better spirits now that Izzy is at our house."
Across the fire-ravaged state, where 40 people have been confirmed dead in four counties, reunions such as this one bring moments of light amid a grim landscape.
Statewide, an estimated 5,700 structures have been destroyed and nearly 100,000 people have been displaced, officials said, The Washington Post reported. In the Weavers' town of Santa Rosa, the county seat and gateway to the wine tourism industry, the fires have destroyed nearly 3,000 homes and caused $1.2 billion in damage.
At Sonoma County Animal Services, veterinarians and assistants are providing care for 64 cats and 44 dogs, almost all of them brought in from areas affected by fires, the AP reported.
On Facebook, the shelter has been posting videos and pictures of the animals they take in, hoping to send word to their owners.
Some of these attempts have worked. Ed Ratliff, a Santa Rosa resident, was reunited with his cat, Milo, on Thursday. An officer found the cat crouching under a Honda Civic and took him to the shelter, KTVU reported.
Ohndrea Elliot began looking for Kitty, her 10-year-old calico cat, the day after she evacuated her home and Kitty had run across the street. She lost her home and all of her belongings in the fire.
"I felt horrible," Elliot, 23, told KTVU. "It broke my heart. We had everyone else safe except Kitty. And she was the last thing I saw as we were leaving. She was running for her life."
Elliot contacted the Sonoma Humane Society, and the shelter sent her a photo of the cat, which had burned its paws and fur.
"I broke down really hard," Elliot said. "I couldn't breathe."
As for the Weavers, Jack Weaver told NBC News his mom had "gone through a lot."
"The goal was to try to put her mind at ease one way or the other," Jack Weaver said. "We didn't believe (Izzy) would've survived."
"We didn't expect to see her, and she came bounding out," he recounted to Good Morning America. "It was elation, tears, happiness, one of the greatest moments of my life."