The volunteer at the front desk will tell you that technically, the Canyon fire evacuation center at Corona High School doesn’t allow pets. But if you really listen, the emphasis is on the word technically.
“Technically, we only allow service dogs, but I don't have the heart to say no,” confessed Janet Upchurch, a volunteer supervisor from the Red Cross who just returned from Texas, where she helped Hurricane Harvey evacuees.
Upchurch said Tuesday that pets were being housed in an anteroom at the side of the gym.
“Our dogs are our babies, especially when we're older,” said Upchurch, 83. “Wherever we go, we always remember our animals.”
That was certainly the case for Susan Niese. The 65-year old evacuee said she couldn’t imagine leaving home without her gray tabby kitten, Willow.
"It was nerve-racking," said the graphic designer. "Just the traffic for what normally would be an hour's commute was insane. I absolutely could not leave without my cat."
Niese and other pet owners expressed surprise at the donated gifts that greeted them and their pets at the evacuation center: chew toys, blankets and plenty of treats and dry food to feed their charges.
“The people here offered an incredible amount of support,” she said. “The generosity of strangers is overflowing.”
Shuichi Shimokawa, 56, who has lived in Corona for more than 20 years, evacuated with two dogs and two cats. Ashes still covered the glistening black coat of Cocoa, the family's Labrador. Next to him, Ruby, a flat-coated retriever and chow mix, sprawled on a flannel wrap, worry in her eyes.
"The volunteers are amazing in the best way," Shimokawa said. "To us, they are like heroes."
The speed of the fire caught the Tu family in Corona off guard.
“We never knew it would spread so quickly. Then we saw ashes in our back and front yard. and so my dad went for the computers and hard drives,” Kyle Tu, 9, remembered, as he stood Tuesday outside the evacuation center. “We were all panicking.”
Right away, he grabbed his eczema and asthma medication as family members escorted their Siberian husky, Koby, into their Nissan truck.
The fire forced their neighbors to leave, and when the Tu clan saw familiar faces loading up their cars, they, too, fled.
Karina Tu, 15, a sophomore at Corona’s Centennial High, said she didn't have enough time to take any homework or schoolbooks. Seeing the group of three dozen evacuees set up in the gym, she figured she wouldn't be able to sleep among strangers. So overnight, she stayed in the family car and hopped around on social media until 2 a.m. Tuesday, offering and receiving words of comfort from classmates struggling with the same situation across the city.
“Some of my friends are in hotels, some are with relatives. Everyone's stressed out, but we realize how lucky we are,” she said. “I just want to make sure everyone we know is safe. What I learned from this is our animals and our people are irreplaceable. During an emergency, nothing else matters.”
That's why it's even harder that the family had to leave behind Sassy, their elderly shepherd mix, who suffers from a brain tumor. At 15, she moves too slowly, so they tried putting out plenty of food and water in the garage.
Meanwhile, Koby, the Siberian husky, barked plaintively just outside the shelter. It seemed everyone — even the animals — wanted to go home.