Miracle Sarah: Border collie wakes up ‘parents’ in time to escape Lobo Fire
November 30, 2017
Eight-year-old Sarah raced frantically up and down the house's hallway. She could smell the smoke and see the fire, and she knew her elderly "parents" were sound asleep.
That's how Ralph and Stella Morris relate the events of Oct. 9, as the Lobo Fire roared toward and then consumed their home. They say if their loyal border collie, Sarah, hadn't awakened them, they surely would have died in the fire.
"It was about 1:30 or 2 o'clock in the morning," said Stella, 73. "Something was wrong and Sarah knew it. She was running up and down the hall and woke me up. The whole house was filled with smoke. I looked out the back slider and could see the fire was already in our backyard."
The couple took what they could: Stella's cell phone and purse, and a few bottles of Ralph's diabetes medicine.
"We basically got out with the clothes on our backs," said Stella. "The fire was already there and burning debris was falling on us. The winds were blowing 50- to 60-miles-an-hour that night."
Ralph grabbed Sarah and jumped into his Ford F350, while Stella scrambled into her Subaru.
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"I know Sarah saved our lives," said Ralph, 76. "If I'd slept any longer, I'd probably have been fried up in the house. There was no warning at all. Our smoke alarms didn't go off, even though we'd just serviced them two weeks prior."
Today, only rubble remains where their home of 43 years once stood on Pick and Pan Lane in Rough and Ready.
"We survived the 49er Fire in 1988, but we had a day to prepare," said Ralph. "I had sprinklers running everywhere. The fire came within two feet of the house, but we saved it. There was no time to prepare for this fire."
It was providence that Sarah was there to save their lives. During the first year of her life, Sarah belonged to a neighbor. The neighbor was diagnosed with cancer and just before he died in 2009, he signed over Sarah to Stella and Ralph.
Ralph had accompanied that neighbor to a dog breeder's ranch, and helped select Sarah from an adorable litter of five squirming, squeaking border collie puppies. It was Ralph who physically picked up the weeks-old Sarah, carried her to his truck, and gently placed her inside. Stella thinks Sarah remembers that encounter.
"She bonded with my husband back then," said Stella. "I think she remembers Ralph picking her up and putting her in the truck. Now she's with him constantly. It took more than a year before she warmed up to me, even though I pet her and gave her treats. We're friends now, but Ralph is her favorite."
Sarah herself has had her own share of close calls. Shortly after she moved to the Morris home, she escaped. Stella was taking Sarah to the veterinarian, and the dog spooked. She jerked the leash out of Stella's hand and ran.
"We lost her for five days and five nights," recalled Stella. "It was cold and raining. We put more than 100 miles on each of our vehicles searching Rough and Ready for her. We put up posters everywhere. On the fifth day, a lady called me and said she'd seen a black and white dog lying on side of the highway. We thought for sure Sarah had been hit by a car. We went to the spot and my husband started walking along the ditch. Something came up and nudged him on the back of the leg. It was Sarah. She was covered in ticks and starved, but alive."
"If anything happened to her, I'd probably die," said Ralph. "Everywhere I go, she goes. I do love her."
Another favorite Sarah story involves her hunting prowess.
"She killed a skunk and brought it to the door one night," said Ralph. "Did she ever stink! We tried ketchup, lemon juice, and finally vinegar worked a little bit. But she smelled like skunk for three months."
Ever since the fire, Ralph, Stella and Sarah have been living at the Gold Miners Inn. At the height of the Lobo Fire evacuations, there were 22 dogs living at the downtown Grass Valley hotel.
"When another dog comes around me, Sarah gets jealous," said Ralph. "She tries to herd them away, jumping to one side and back to the other."
Their stay at the Gold Miners Inn has been paid by a FEMA grant. But that grant expires Dec. 7, and the Morisses don't know where they'll go. They've ordered a manufactured home, but it's back-ordered and won't be available for another two or three months.
Meanwhile, everyone at the hotel — guests and staff alike — adores Sarah.
"All the maids love Sarah," said Ralph. "They pet her and say, 'Hi,' and her tail starts wagging. Everybody knows her. Everybody that we talk to knows she saved our lives."
"She's a miracle dog," said Stella.
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.
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