On a flight back from Florida to Colorado last Thursday, David and Michele Weingarden weren't sure what to tell their kids about the family dog, Jedi.
The family was boarding a plane in West Palm Beach when the emergency alerts started popping up on their cell phones. The Marshall fire had started its eastward sprint into Superior.
Winds gusting more than 100 mph were pushing the flames toward their home and Dog Tag, the pet hotel where Jedi awaited the family’s return from its winter beach vacation.
The couple scrambled to find more info over the in-flight internet. Unable to reach the boarding facility, David Weingarden got in touch with a neighbor who confirmed the kennel could be in trouble. David's heart sank. Michele's mind tensed with images of Jedi in pain.
"That's when I decided to post the pictures to Twitter and Instagram and Facebook," David Weingarden said.
He included his cell phone number along with photos of Jedi chewing a stick.
Those images made the bouncy, bob-tailed mutt a social media symbol of uncertainty amid the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. Thousands reposted the call for help, many of whom texted tips about the dog's location. It was an experience that's left the Weingardens with gratitude for their community and gnawing guilt for their own good fortune.
The first clues to where Jedi could be came from where he was boarded.
Finding Jedi wasn't easy, though.
David and Michele told their kids about the threat to Jedi during a layover in Houston, where they faced a three-and-a-half-hour flight delay. The wait was frustrating, but it also gave the Weingardens a chance to piece together Jedi's whereabouts.
Most of the information came from Ellie Creasey, a senior at the University of Colorado Boulder who works at Dog Tag. She left the boarding facility for a lunch break when emergency officials evacuated the town of Superior. Unable to return, she drove to her Boulder dorm room to coordinate the search for each dog at the facility.
Creasey soon learned Dog Tag's owner, Donelle Slater, had managed to load her car with 12 dogs during the evacuation. She released the remaining animals into a gravel dog run, turning on outdoor faucets to flood the area in case the flames grew too close.
"Her amazing, quick thinking probably saved all those dogs' lives," Creasey said.
Other employees managed to evacuate more dogs before the Marshall fire arrived. When it did, the flames burned the fence, opening an escape route. By working the phones, Creasey learned many of those dogs found people who took them to nearby shelters.
Late that night, Creasey received a call from a group of college-aged kids who read about the situation on social media and somehow managed to reach the boarding facility amid the road closures. Only three dogs were unaccounted for, and they found all of them inside or near the facility. That included Jedi, but he wouldn't approach the group.
"I immediately called David, Jedi's owner, and told them he's still there," Creasey said.
The Weingardens return to Denver, and the search for Jedi begins.
At this point, the family had just touched down at Denver International Airport. David Weingarden remembered a silent but instinctive understanding as they started driving to Superior: No matter what it took, they were going to find Jedi.
After driving past flaming homes and a burnt-out car, the family found a state patrol officer blocking the only road to the dog care facility. They explained the situation, and, to their surprise, he let them pass.
"Thankfully, he had a heart and he let us go back there," David Weingarden said.
The boarding business was standing but stained with smoke. Fire alarms flashed and screamed in the hallways. The family went inside and searched the kennels with the lights on their phones. No luck.
The family flagged down someone driving a truck towing a trailer who was evacuating horses. The driver confirmed seeing a dog that looked like Jedi close to a nearby Costco. The Weingardens drove toward the shopping center’s parking lot and stopped the car to shout his name out the window.
Then, the family looked down. Jedi was standing just outside the car, his whole body shivering and his eyes clogged with soot. They opened the door and he lept inside.
"He started licking all of us," Michele Weingarden said. "Our kids were crying hysterically. It was seriously out of Lassie Come Home."
Jedi quickly lapped up two coffee mugs full of water and collapsed to sleep on 12-year-old Gideon Weingarden's lap.
Jedi and the Weingardens' story had a happy ending, but not every family's did.
Today, the dog is back at the Weingarden’s suburban home, which was spared by the wind-flung embers of the Marshall fire.
David Weingarden has a hard time telling the story of Jedi. He can't help but think of neighbors who lost homes and pets — many who were denied the happy ending his family found in a dark parking lot at the end of a long night. As of Monday, the Boulder County Humane Society listed almost 100 dogs and cats as missing.
"A lot of people around here are talking about survivors’ guilt, and I feel it," he said. "It doesn't feel like a celebratory thing."
It's a sadness the Weingardens have softened by volunteering with local groups helping with the wildfire recovery. Jedi, on the other hand, seemed thrilled on a recent morning, especially with recent snow layered over the backyard. He tossed rope toys to himself before pausing to bark at someone in an adjacent yard.
"Sorry about that," Weingarden said. "He still doesn't understand the neighbor is the neighbor."
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