When Kate Barr was 6 years old, she found a homeless kitten on a West Virginia back road and took it home. It was, she told friends, God's plan that she take care of stray animals.
For the last 16 years, the Fairfax County woman, now 50, has done just that, caring for hundreds of abandoned and injured dogs and cats at her farm in the western portion of the county.
Yesterday, Barr was in tears as she stared at the charred remains of her makeshift kennel where as many as 33 of her 38 dogs and cats perished in an early morning fire.
"Sometimes I wonder why the Lord puts such a burden on me. I just can't believe this," Barr said. "I've been taking care of animals all my life, the ones that people get tired of and just abandon. Now almost all of them are gone."
Barr, a frail five feet tall, ran her trembling, thin fingers through her light brown hair covered by a red bandanna, and said that she had "made ends meet by boarding animals for neighbors.
"But I was never in it for the money, and was always scraping the bottom. Everything I did went for the animals," she said.
Barr said that she had gone out to dinner with a friend late Wednesday night and had returned to let the dogs out for a run about midnight "in separate groups like always. Some of the dogs don't like each other."
An hour later she noticed an ominous glow inside the kennel, and heard the dogs barking furiously. She dashed to the building and confronted "an inferno when I opened the door. I ran back and forth inside, opening cages until the heat almost got to me, but very few of the animals got out."
Fairfax County firefighters from Centreville said yesterday that flames from the kennel were visible four miles away and "lit up" the nighttime sky. The $8,000 kennel was totally destroyed, said fire department spokesman Stephanie Hoover.
"This is really a great calamity," Mrs. John S. Collins, a neighbor, said yesterday. "She's such a delightful person.And she just loved animals. This is really some kind of tragedy for her."
Barr had worked 16 to 18 hours a day for her animals, applying handmade splints for pups like "Andy," a mixed collie that she found in a local trash dump with a broken front leg several months ago. As the survivors of the fire playfully nudged her, she said that people who wanted to get rid of their pets would purposefully leave them near her farm.
"They knew I would taken them in, so people started leaving them in front of the house. I kept them all," she said.
Hoover said that the fire was caused by a small wood stove in the kennel that was used to keep the animals warm. Investigators said that it would be necessary to sift through the rubble to determine exactly how many of the animals had died, a task that Barr said she cannot bear.
"I used to train some of the animals for our local parades," she said. "One of the dogs did a little trick for me before I locked him up last night. Now he's dead. I just can't even stand looking at it (the kennel) now."