Credit: Suzanne Maxwell
PARADISE, Calif. (KTVU) - He's being called a symbol of hope. 101 days after being separated from his owners as they fled the Camp Fire, an Akita dog named Kingston has been reunited with his family.
The last time the Ballejoses saw their dog was when they were frantically evacuating their home in Paradise. Kingston was in their truck, but the frightened dog then jumped out of the vehicle and took off running. It was too dangerous to go after him, and all they could do was hope the 12-year-old dog would somehow survive.
On Sunday, family members got word that their dog beat the odds and made it out alive.
"I called the family and they were ecstatic," said Hannah Braden of the rescue group Friends of Camp Fire Cats.
Braden told KTVU the dog showed up on a surveillance camera about a month and a half ago.
She worked with Ben Lepe, a local dog-trapper, and over the weekend he managed to secure Kingston.
Lepe then brought him to Friends of Camp Fire Cats, and volunteers looked through their database and located Kingston's owners.
"I called the initial family member and within minutes I had five different family members said it was him," Braden said.
She took it upon herself to take the dog home and get him bathed before the big reunion.
The dog smelled of skunk, leading Braden to suspect he survived on skunk along with the food she and other volunteers have been putting out as part of their efforts to locate pets that got lost during the fire.
Video taken of the emotional reunion shows the granddaughter of Kingston's owner anxiously waiting to see the dog.
"The dog and little girl grew up together," Braden explained.
When she finally sees him, the little girl apprehensively walks over to the dog, bends down to his level and buries her face in his. The dog slowly greets the rest of the family with his tail cheerfully wagging back and forth.
There are kisses, tears and even a "shake" from the dog.
Braden and her volunteers have located more than 200 cats found after the devastating Camp Fire.
Unfortunately, many of the cats won't receive the happy reunion Kingston and his family got.
"I would say about 30 percent of animals we bring in get reunited," Braden said.
She explained that many animals aren't chipped and many of the owners who lost their pet in the fire are elderly and don't have access to social media, which plays a big hand in getting the word out. In other cases, owners who have lost their home have left the area and can't be reached.
Heavily driven by volunteer and grass-roots fundraising efforts, the Friends of Camp Fire Cats continues to seek ways to find happy endings for the animals that were displaced by the flames.
And it's reunion stories like Kingston's that keep Braden and the other volunteers going.
"Even for us volunteers it was really emotional," she said, "for this family that lost everything."