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Thirty-nine puppies and kittens, many slated for adoption, died Thursday morning when an electrical fire damaged a trailer at the Animal Friends of the Valley shelter in Lake Elsinore.
Two dogs housed nearby were rescued.
All that remained Thursday in the smoldering wooden trailer were metal cages, twisted by heat; overturned water bowls; and three red, squeaky toys peering through the soot.
The fire struck as the shelter awaits approval from Riverside County, environmental agencies and city officials, to construct a permanent home, which would include concrete facilities and fire sprinklers.
Permit issues and plan changes have delayed construction. Shelter Executive Director Willa Bagwell said she expects the project will not be finished for at least two more years.
"You can replace computers and stuff," Bagwell said. "I mean, you can't replace these guys," she said, referring to the animals.
Bagwell said the shelter will continue to function as usual, although it probably will need to rebuild the trailer to use until a permanent facility is built.
Volunteer Michele Riley was working to get the shelter on Bastron Street running again. She said businesses have donated food, supplies and money.
The cause of the fire is under investigation, Bagwell said.
The current facility is composed of several aging, wooden trailers that house the offices and the smaller dogs and puppies. The kittens recently were placed in the trailer that burned after they were removed from an abusive home, Bagwell said.
Across a small grass courtyard are covered, outdoor kennels where the larger dogs and cats are housed. Bagwell estimates the shelter still has 100 dogs, about 50 cats and a duck on the property.
Buddy Martin acts as the shelter's security guard. He checked the property at 4:45 a.m. and noticed smoke coming from the rear of the trailer.
Martin stays in a trailer that backs up to the one where the puppies were housed. He called the Fire Department when he heard the dogs barking.
"I tried to pull them out and flames just shot out," Martin said.
Bagwell said she got a call about 5 a.m. from a fire captain. She raced down from her Menifee home to find the trailer engulfed in flames.
"It was on fire and the roof kept sparking," Bagwell said dabbing the tears from her eyes with soot-stained hands. "There wasn't any barking. They were all dead."
Bagwell and Martin were watching as the fire was fought when they saw two dogs still alive in an outdoor kennel that backs up to the trailer. The kennel was catching fire and the two used a hose and wet towels to pull out two soot-covered golden retriever-Labrador mixes.
Firefighters called one of the puppies "Lucky." On Thursday afternoon, Lucky stood at the front of his cage, his tail wagging.
A turquoise wooden sign, barely singed by the flames, hung outside the trailer with the lettering "Puppies."
The ground around the trailer was soggy with mud and ashes. The stench of charred wood hung thick in the air, clinging to clothes and riling up the remaining nearby dogs.
Danny Harrington was one of the adoptive owners who received morning calls from the office.
He was told his dog had been killed in the fire. Minutes later he got another call and was told his dog was one of two that survived.
"I was elated," Harrington said as he watched his new dog play in his Murrieta backyard. "I had to drive down and see he was doing OK and I got to take him home."