Lawrence Ross looked beat, his head hanging and his eyes bloodshot five days after fleeing his home in the path of a wall of flames.
Ross showed up at a high school in the small Northern California town of Lower Lake, where authorities were escorting residents briefly into the evacuation zone to inspect their homes and check on pets and livestock. They had not let residents return since the fire erupted Saturday about 100 miles north of San Francisco, scorching thousands of acres and reducing more than 800 homes to ash.
When told officials were no longer letting residents in at all, not even with escorts, Ross sighed heavily, shook his head and fought back tears. "I think my house is OK, but I don't know, and my dog is there, and my goats and horses and alpacas," he said. "My dog, my dog."
Associated Press reporter Brian Skoloff was planning to head back out to scout for more stories so he grabbed his map and said, "Show me where your house is. I'll swing by while I'm out there."
Ross, 76, circled a spot off Big Canyon Road and tapped it twice with the pen.
After about 10 miles of navigating twisting roads and dodging downed power lines, Skoloff came to Ross' dirt driveway. Unbelievably, the home was unscathed, the earth charred all around it where firefighters had beat back the flames.
But there was no sign of Thumper, Ross' elderly 70-pound Labrador.
Skoloff walked the property for another hour, whistling and calling out Thumper's name.
Thumper emerged from a crawlspace, covered in ash and soot — her tail wagging, her tongue flopping. She leaped into Skoloff's lap, licked his face, then rolled over on her back as Skoloff rubbed her belly and cried.
Skoloff immediately called Ross. "Your house is OK. Your animals are fine, and I've got Thumper!"
The reporter drove the pooch to where her owner was waiting. Thumper pushed her way out of the car and ran toward him, her entire body wagging.
It was a moment of pure joy.
"I dreamed last night the house was burning down, and I could hear her screaming as she burned," Ross said.
"I can't believe it," Ross repeated with tears in his eyes.