'Miracle' raccoon survives wildfire, brings hope to a community

The Yarnell Hill fire, which struck in Arizona last summer, was one of the most devastating wildfires in U.S. history. Tragically, 19 firefighters died while battling the blaze -- an irrecuperable loss that has the region in mourning long after the last ember from the fire was put out.

But nearly a month after the smoke lifted and those who perished were laid to rest, a remarkable survivor descended from those blackened hills -- sure proof of the resiliency of life, emerging as a symbol of hope for the hard-hit community.

In the weeks following the fire, Yarnell residents Leon Smith and his wife Christine began leaving their back door open and bowls of food out for displaced cats to eat until their owners could recover them. One afternoon however, Leon noticed bloody paw prints leading inside, and soon discovered an injured raccoon had taken refuge in his home, cowering and shivering from exhaustion.

The Smiths called for wildlife rescue to collect the animal, and that's when the first clues of its harrowing ordeal became apparent. With burns on its legs and ears that had been singed off, it was clear that the animal had somehow escaped the wildfire with its life.

B.J. Dorman, of Arizona's Department of Game and Fish calls the raccoon "a fighter":

"I can't begin to imagine what she went through for the three weeks before she was rescued. The mere fact that she escaped through the terrifying flames, successfully hid from predators when she could barely walk on her severely burned and infected little legs, and was able to inexplicably scavenge for food and water - it's nothing less than a miracle."

It's no wonder then that they decided to name the animal 'Grace'.

When veterinary staff first looked at Grace, it was clear that she needed lots of attention. Vet Michael Kiedrowski volunteered his time to perform a series of life-saving surgeries to help put her on the road to recovery -- not just for the raccoon, but for the hope that she represented for people living in the area.

"It's something to give the community a reason to cheer," Demlong said. "Maybe through their actions, [the firefighters who died] somehow helped save this raccoon."

After weeks of healing from her injuries which leave her unable to return to the wild, Grace will soon be transfered to Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary to live out her days, in view of the community she's inspired.

And she's already helping in the healing process in place that has lost so much.

"Stories like that really do help now," says Christine Smith, who's been following Grace's progress since she was first rescued from her home. "When I talk about the little raccoon, its definitely uplifting for me. I think she symbolizes something."

"I'm just so pleased they did save her," adds Leon.

Tags: Animals | Arizona | Conservation

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