The dogs were the first ones to smell the smoke.

As a raging wildfire crept closer and closer to the Alaskan town of Willow on Sunday, the animals began barking before the alarms sounded.

But as smoke blackened the midnight sun over a community known for its dog sledding, the sport’s heroic stars couldn’t flee: They were stuck inside cages or bound with chains.

So their owners stayed, risking their lungs and lives and homes to rescue their beloved animals. Even as the smoke poured in. Even as the rest of their belongings went up in flames.

“The troopers may not have been very happy, but we had to go” help the dogs, DeeDee Jonrowe, a veteran dog musher, told local TV station KTUU. “The concept of any animal burning is just almost too much to bear.”

In a remarkable reversal of the Iditarod — the famous race where humans rely on huskies to guide them through wintry hell — dog mushers dared death to save their dogs.

Willow is the traditional starting point for the Iditarod, which is dubbed the “Last Great Race on Earth” and lasts more than a week as it crosses the entire state. That means that many dog mushers choose to live in or near the small town.

Jonrowe had just left her 52 dogs behind and gone to help another Iditarod veteran, Martin Buser, host tourists at his ranch near Willow on Sunday when the two heard about the approaching inferno.

“I was about ready to have a hot toddy and call it a day,” Buser told KTUU. But then his wife, Kathy Chapoton, arrived with terrible news: A wildfire was roaring up Sockeye Avenue toward Jonrowe’s home.

Jonrowe and Chapoton jumped in their pickup trucks and raced to Jonrowe’s home, disregarding evacuation orders along the way, in an attempt to save her dogs, which were chained up in the yard.

When they arrived, they were greeted by fire. “There was a towering wall of flames and thick grayish smoke, the sound of trees cracking and exploding, and only enough time to save the sled dogs,” KTUU reported.

Jonrowe ran inside and grabbed her passports, some cash and a checkbook. Then she and Chapoton rounded up the huskies, put them in the trucks and drove off as the fire moved in.

She had saved the animals but lost almost everything else. The house she built. The handmade dog sleds she has ridden for the past 35 years, including in the most recent Iditarod in March.

“Thirty-eight years of memories gone,” she told KTUU. “They’re just things, but it breaks your heart to lose them.”

Perhaps most painful, Jonrowe believes the fire did claim one canine, a 15-year-old dog named Python who was deaf. Also likely claimed by the fire: her cat and nine chickens.

Jonrowe wasn’t the only dog musher desperately trying to save her animals. On Monday, Iditarod racer Jan Steves posted a dramatic photo of her destroyed house to Facebook. “Our home…,” she wrote.

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Our home…

Posted by Jan Steves on Monday, June 15, 2015

She, too, endured a frantic day trying to keep her dogs out of the path of the fire.

“Where can we take my dogs? Any one?” Steves wrote frantically on Facebook on Monday. “They are at [fellow musher] Gwenn Wisell Perkins Bogart’s. She said they are next on the evacuation list????”

But the raging inferno, which has destroyed more than 7,500 acres of forest, slowed on Monday, apparently sparing the animals.

“We have confirmed that [the town of Houston] isn’t evacuating,” Steves wrote. “So dogs aren’t moving. However we now have a dog truck so we can move dogs if needed.”

By Monday evening, the situation had stabilized. Steves posted photos of her dogs playing with the caption: “Happy reunion! Dogs have shade and are happy. ”

 

In all, at least 15 dog mushers were forced from their homes by the fire, which is still blazing and has so far destroyed more than 1,700 structures, according to the Associated Press. Authorities said the fire was man-made, but the exact cause is not yet known.

About 500 dogs have been rescued, the AP reported. Between 200 and 400 of the animals ended up with Buser at his kennels in Big Lake, about 20 miles from the fire.

“Everybody’s relieved that their dogs are safe and here, but the people that have lost their homes, they are dejected,” said Buser, who is also taking in displaced people.

Steve Charles, a member of the Willow Dog Mushers’ Association, spent Sunday scrambling to other people’s dogs from the advancing wildfire. He and others drove around with dog boxes on the backs of their trucks, but when he returned to his own house south of Willow, he found that the fire wasn’t far off.

“I didn’t realize I would have to be evacuating myself,” he told the AP while staying at an American Red Cross evacuation center. Neighbors had told him that his house had ultimately been spared.

And his dogs?

They, too, were safe and sound, lounging in the shade next to their owner — and savior.