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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Recuperating Man, Dog Who Saved Him Reunited at Burn Unit

Smokey convinced the widower, 85, to leave their trailer as flames approached. He's recovering from third-degree burns.

November 15, 2003|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

Smokey, a 12-year-old black Labrador, does not fetch. He does not roll over or play dead.

But the lumbering, sad-eyed dog does one thing well: He keeps a watchful eye on his life-long companion, Gardner Credle, a retired aerospace worker from Riverside County.

"He's not a trick dog. He's a protector," Credle said proudly as he patted the dog Friday in a hospital room where Credle is recovering from third-degree burns he suffered in the recent wildfires.

Credle and his family credit Smokey for saving the life of the 85-year-old grandfather who was caught off guard when one of the October wildfires raced toward his trailer on a hillside in Reche Canyon.

Credle saw a cloud of smoke and felt the fire's heat, but he didn't think to flee until Smokey put his head on the man's lap, shot him a concerned look and then tried to jump into the back of Credle's pickup.

"He looked up at me and said, 'Pappy, it's time to go,' " Credle said after he was reunited with Smokey on Friday in the burn center of Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton. "He sensed that I was in trouble."

Credle got out just in time to see his trailer burst into flames. But the heat singed his arms and legs. He is expected to spend two or three more weeks at the burn center.

Credle's stepdaughter, Kim Peterson, said she has no doubt that Credle would have tried to wait out the fire in the trailer and ultimately would have perished had the dog not coaxed him to leave.

"He wouldn't have left," Peterson said. "He's stubborn."

"It was a miracle," Katie Peterson, Credle's granddaughter, said of Smokey's response.

Not bad for the runt of a litter of nine.

Credle moved to the secluded Reche Canyon area with his wife, Evelyn, in 1990. They lived in a 42-foot trailer that was powered by a gasoline generator. Shortly afterward, Credle's stepdaughter gave him the undersized puppy, which he named Smokey because of his charcoal-black fur.

When Credle's wife died in 1999, Smokey became his only companion. The dog, now a husky 98 pounds, slept at the foot of Credle's bed or at the door of the trailer.

Back in October, Credle returned to his trailer after shopping for food and gasoline and noticed that the sky had darkened and the temperature shot up. Credle said he had been through a previous wildfire and didn't think he was in danger. He unloaded the gasoline from his truck and sat down to catch his breath.

That's when Smokey made it clear that it was time to leave.

Credle said he had driven only 20 feet or so when he looked into his rear-view mirror and saw his trailer catch fire. Investigators believe that the blaze, the first of a series of fires that tore through Southern California, was the result of arson.

"I would have been dead not two minutes later," Credle said.

After he got to his stepdaughter's house in Grand Terrace, Credle said he noticed the skin on his legs looked like fried bacon.

Kim Peterson said she came home to find her stepfather beet red and shaking. Smokey was shook up too. Credle's family immediately drove him to a hospital and took Smokey to a veterinarian to be treated for shock.

Because of Credle's age and a heart condition, Dr. Ruben Osorio, director of the burn center, said surgery was not an option. Still, Osorio said he believes Credle will recover with only minor scars.

"I don't think he realizes how serious things were," Osorio said.

Asked if he hopes to return to live in Reche Canyon after he recovers, Credle snapped: "No way!"

He said he planned to move into his stepdaughter's home in Grand Terrace. Smokey, of course, has a space reserved at the foot of Credle's bed.

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