Common Tread

Motorcycle racer Shelina Moreda saves animals from California fires

Nov 23, 2018

The recent "Camp" fire has become the deadliest fire in California history. Thousands of people have lost their homes, but many were spared even more painful losses, thanks to the efforts of Shelina Moreda. If you recognize that name, it’s because she used to be a MotoAmerica road racer (and hopes to be one again.)

During the rush of evacuation before the fast-moving Camp fire, many people in and around the town of Paradise had no choice but to leave pets and livestock behind. That’s where Shelina comes in — literally — because besides being a model and motorcycle racer, she’s also a pet-rescue (s)hero. She goes into the burn zone to find animals left behind and returns them to their owners.

Shelina and I are friends on Facebook. When I saw photos of her rescuing pets from evacuated buildings around Paradise, I had to know more. Ironically, when I reached her by phone, she answered from New York City. She’d flown straight in from rescuing animals for a Cover Girl photo shoot, and was flying straight back to Northern California to manage the rescue operation the next day. There’s a look in makeup that they call a "smoky eye." I’m guessing she’s got that down pat.

It has been one year since the fires devastated Northern California. There is so much I have to say about it, and in so many ways my life has changed forever. I’d never been through any disaster like this before, never seen so much devastation and so many people effected, and never seen so many people more compelled to step up. I started writing a post and it turned into a story, so I’ll post a link to that in my bio if you want to read the rest. Here’s a taste of what my world was like through the fires... I was at a cousins wedding in Yosemite when we heard the news the morning after the fires had started. We had to drive several hours home, just wondering. When I got home to the ranch, our driveway was full of vehicles I didn’t know, from our employees’ friends and families who had to evacuate, and were taking shelter at our ranch. It was eerie, scary, and I just ran over and told them to let us know whatever they needed, blankets, food, whatever. We were in this together. I remember fighting to hold back tears because I didn’t want to upset them even more. I then ran and packed up all my moms photo albums in case we all needed to get out too. As bad as it was, you have this thought that it’s going to be over soon, but that did not happen. The next few weeks were a blur... my cousin Kat and I, started out delivering burritos to fire crews, and then I hopped in the truck with friends Aaron and Allayna to get some horses out of Bennet Valley Road, and that’s when we realized this was so much bigger than we even imagined. There were 15 or more trucks and trailers being blocked at the bottom of the mountain, not allowed to go up to get animals. This is where it started for me. I knew I had to help. We had to get in early before road blocks, work with officials, and eventually change policies so animals don’t die and people don’t die trying to protect their animals. I organized haulers and teams and I dispatched for 19 to 21 hours a day for the next almost 2 weeks, because that fire did not stop. I started calling my crew “Team Badass”, because to me that’s what they were. Relentless, determined, strong, and unafraid to go into a scary situation. #tobecontinued

A post shared by Shelina Moreda (@shelina93racing) on

“It started last year during the Santa Rosa fire,” she told me. “A friend called me up and told me about a horse that needed to be rescued, that my friend had read about on Facebook. I had a truck and a trailer. I loaded up with a couple of friends and we headed out to where the horse was.”

They never got there, because the road was blocked by the California Highway Patrol. The crazy thing was, there were 15 — yes, 15! — trucks with trailers, all people who’d seen the panicked horse owner’s appeal on social media. While everyone else milled around wondering how to either cajole or bypass the cops, Moreda took more effective action: She went from truck to truck gathering contact information and convinced everyone to work together, so they could figure out how to get into the fire zone, and send one truck to each location instead of 15.

“We never knew how big that fire was going to be,” she told me. “We thought it would be a couple of days’ work and we’d all be back at our regular jobs, but it was a two-week firestorm.”

She immediately realized that there was no established organization for getting livestock out of harm’s way, but that having 15 trucks show up for one horse was worse than inefficient; it made the jobs of police and fire crews even more difficult.

Within four days, Shelina rushed through the process of setting up a legal non-profit in Sacramento, complete with officers, a by-the-book board of directors, and a Facebook page where pet and livestock owners could request rescues. She suddenly found herself president of NorCal Livestock Evacuation & Support, as well its dispatcher — assigning livestock rescues to a rapidly growing cadre of volunteers.

Riding around with my copilot Annie and fielding calls from PG&E, Fire, and CHP guys. You guys are amazing, thank you for helping with the animals while still working so hard at your own job. We appreciate you calling us to get them. Everyone cares so much, it’s awesome to see and even more awesome to be a part of. Many calls are really difficult because we are having to tell people that their house is gone and their animals are nowhere in sight, but calls like this where we find an injured cat that we can get help for, are a win! Thanks to Sebastian, we get to bring this kitty to the vet to get it fixed up and find it’s family again. Know someone in Paradise or Magalia who’s animals need to get out? Call us. NorCal Livestock Evacuation. We are working around the clock to get these animals to safety. #paradisefire #campfire #buttefire #norcallivestockevac #teambadass

A post shared by Shelina Moreda (@shelina93racing) on

It ain’t easy. Each fire zone is under the control of a patchwork of state, county, and local officials. They’re understandably focused on saving human lives, and often inclined to leave any animal issues to local Animal Control authorities. The problem is that the municipal dog catcher isn’t equipped to quickly round up and move large numbers of animals.

Sometimes, a coordinated rescue comes together quickly. “In the Santa Rosa fire,” Shelina told me, “we were able to coordinate with Animal Control and go in right away.” But often, the local dog catcher feels his authority is threatened by strangers who are eager to help.

The latest high-profile fire, which destroyed much of the town of Paradise, has proved to be particularly frustrating. Local officials basically handed off responsibility for animal rescue to North Valley Animal Disaster Group. NVADG was the only group authorized to enter the evacuation zone, and actively blocked other animal rescue teams.

“We’ve been getting calls from owners who have been trying to reach NVADG for days. They [NVDAG] didn’t realize they needed help,” Shelina said. “They had only six trucks and trailers working for the first week of the fire.”

Moreda has about 150 trucks at her disposal. Rather than waste energy in a turf war with NVADG, she seconded a group of her volunteers to work with them. Meanwhile, she began attending the morning meetings of first responders to lobby for improved access for her volunteers, and charmed her way into the evacuation zone any way she could.

“I’ve worked seven fires over the last year, including all the big ones,” she said. “The Thomas fire, the Carr fire, the Mendocino fire... but this one is the hardest. We’re seeing the most dead animals and the most destroyed homes.”

Shelina still jumps in to perform hands-on rescues. Depending on the area affected by the fire, the rescues range from livestock to llamas to household pets. “Our motto is, ‘Big or small, we haul them all’,” she told me. “I’ve gone into houses to get people’s birds, even fish.”

Her most important role now, however, is to help streamline future rescue efforts — because if there’s one thing that’s certain, we’re entering a new era of mega-fires; fire seasons are longer, fires burn hotter, and more people are choosing to live in areas prone to fire. That makes it all the more important for animal rescue to get into fire zones ASAP, especially when the fire is still on the way, not after the fact.

“We’re trying to get policy changes,” she told me. “Because if you look at county emergency plans there’s usually nothing about livestock and only a few lines about pets. Most counties don’t even realize they need a plan so that it can be done safely and efficiently. I’m working my tail off trying to explain that we have a plug-and-play system. Fires is what we do; we don’t get cats out of trees or catch dogs, we do disasters.”

Although Shelina’s involvement began with a spur-of-the-moment decision to save one horse, it was pretty clear from talking to her that there’s no end in sight. “I guess you could say I’m a lifer now,” she told me. “I grew up on a dairy farm, caring for animals. I’m not some animal-rights activist saying, ‘Save all the animals!’ but at the same time we’re not going to leave any animal behind.”

“These animals are like family. In some cases, they’re the last thing people have to hold on to,” she told me. “I can’t tell you how many times in the last few weeks I’ve had owners in tears handing their cat back to them, or just calling them and telling them we’re in their house and we’ve got their dogs. To be able to bring something out of the ashes for someone is the best feeling in the whole world.”

Luckily for Shelina Moreda, the California fire season ends around the time the motorcycle racing season begins. She hopes to put together a MotoAmerica 600 Supersport campaign for 2019 and is talking to a couple of teams about it.