At first, Bill Gaylord didn’t think much of the black smoke that loomed across the horizon near his home on the morning of Nov. 8. As his neighbors prepared to flee, Gaylord hopped in his silver Chevy Blazer and drove to a nearby cafe to grab coffee.
After all, the stubborn 75-year-old Gaylord had lived his entire life in Paradise. Why would this fire be any different than so many others? he thought.
But by the time he got home about 7:15 a.m., all hell had broken loose.
Gaylord looked out his kitchen window and saw black embers sprinkling across the canyon. The dry brush instantly caught fire. He heard the flames roar as they raced toward his home.
Gaylord alerted his wife of 50 years, Andrea, who had just awakened, that they needed to leave. Fast.
Andrea, still in her pajamas, grabbed three pairs of underwear and some pants, hopped in her Nissan and left.
Bill didn’t grab anything.
As the flames approached, he parked his car on top of a hill, and focused on trying to save his two 8-year-old half-Anatolian shepherd, half-Pyrenees guard dogs, Madison and Miguel.
But the dogs were confused, and with black smoke surrounding them and the noise of first responders shouting in loudspeakers, the dogs refused to let Bill lift them into his car.
He was left with two choices: Stay and risk their lives or leave.
As Bill drove off that day, he felt a lump in his stomach. It wasn’t because he was worried that his house would burn down or that he wished he had grabbed his belongings.
It was because he had abandoned the dogs that had spent their lives protecting the Gaylords. When it came to Bill’s turn to protect his cherished canines, he felt as if he had failed.
Surely the dogs wouldn’t survive, he thought, as he saw a wall of flames in his rearview mirror.
In that moment, Gaylord felt like a captain who abandoned ship before his crew.
But a series of unlikely events not only led the Gaylords to a reunion with their beloved dogs nearly one month after the deadly Camp fire raged through Paradise and the neighboring communities of Magalia and Concow, but also helped forge a new friendship.
It was 11 days after the fire, on Nov. 19, when Shayla Sullivan, a volunteer with the animal rescue group Cowboy 911, returned to Paradise to try to find Madison and Miguel.
She was assigned to help the Gaylords and several other homeowners who had left their pets behind.
She knew Camp fire victims had had little time to escape the flames and were forced to leave their pets. She wanted to help and try to reunite evacuees with their animals.
But it was nearly impossible to find the Gaylords’ property. The entire city was flattened by the fire, and without cellphone service, Sullivan had to rely on maps to navigate through the destruction.
She called Andrea to make sure she was looking in the right place. That was the first time they had talked.
Sullivan returned the next day. There was no sign that Madison and Miguel were alive. She left food and water anyway, hoping the small gesture would provide some comfort to the Gaylords.
On the third day, Sullivan had a breakthrough. As she peered down the canyon she spotted a small pond. Then she saw what appeared to be a white ball of fluff.
It disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
Sullivan knew the dog wouldn’t approach her. The breed is known to be protective.
Nevertheless, she called Andrea and Bill to tell them the good news.
The Gaylords were ecstatic. But what about their second dog? And which dog had Sullivan seen? Was it Madison or Miguel?
Andrea, 75, started searching online to see if she could spot a picture of any of her dogs and whether they had been rescued. On Nov. 24, several weeks after the fire, she came across a picture that looked like Miguel.
Andrea, who has difficulty walking, called Sullivan and asked for help.
Sullivan found out Miguel was being kept in Citrus Heights, more than 80 miles from Paradise.
With the help of a volunteer, Sullivan loaded the 150-pound dog into her truck and drove to Oroville, where Andrea and Bill were staying in a trailer house at the River Reflections RV park.
Sullivan parked her vehicle and walked to Andrea’s trailer, leaving Miguel inside. When Sullivan returned to the truck, Miguel immediately smelled Andrea on Sullivan’s clothes.
Tail wagging and head shaking, Miguel embraced Andrea when they reunited.
Andrea and Bill were still hopeful that both dogs had survived the fire. But it had been nearly one month since they had seen Madison.
Almost every day, Sullivan would go to Paradise to leave food for the dog.
Finally, on Thursday, Andrea got the news she’d been waiting for: She was allowed to return to Paradise.
She arrived before Bill. She sat in her car at the bottom of the hill and looked around. Then she caught a glimpse of him.
“Madison!” she yelled.
The dog jumped up and down but disappeared for about 10 minutes.
Then Andrea saw him sauntering down the road toward her.
Madison, doing what he does best, had guarded his owners’ property the entire time, waiting patiently for them to return home.
Andrea fed Madison his favorite treats: Wheat Thins and half of a Sausage McMuffin.
Despite the fire, Madison was in great shape. Thanks to Sullivan he was well-fed and had no burns. Just grungy, matted fur.
Sullivan was the first person Andrea called with the great news.
“It’s Madison!” Andrea told the volunteer, through sobs. “He’s alive.”
On Friday, Miguel and Madison reunited for the first time in nearly a month. The dogs wagged their tails and went off running in the distance, doing what they do best: guarding their owners’ property.