VALRICO — Betsy Hicka ran into her burning home and spotted her standard poodle Lacey lying by the door.
The fluffy white matriarch of an award-winning show dog family looked liked she was sleeping. Hicka scooped her up and ran outside.
"But she was already gone," Hicka said Wednesday morning as she wiped tears from her cheek.
Hicka tried to run back inside to save the four other dogs in the home but firefighters told her it was too dangerous. None of them survived.
"I lost five members of my family," she said.
It was an especially devastating loss for a woman who has made a livelihood caring for other people's pets.
Hicka's house at 514 N St. Cloud Ave. shares about 2.5 acres with the Almost Home Pet Resort, a business she has owned and operated for 25 years. The 10,000-square-foot pet building sits about a hundred yards behind the house, so none of the roughly two-dozen animals being boarded there were injured.
But the staff members and customers grieved along with Hicka on Wednesday, gathering in the resort building's lobby to share tearful hugs and stories about dogs that were part of their extended family.
Along with 11-year-old Lacey, there were two other white standard poodles inside the house, Maverick, 6, and Star, 5. Both were from Lacey's litter. Casey was a 9-year-old Shih Tzu-Yorkie mix — also known as a Shorkie — and Gidget, an 8-year-old toy poodle.
Hicka, 65, came home about 6 p.m. Tuesday, fed them and let them out, then left for a meeting. She got home a few hours later to find smoke pouring out the windows and doors and one Hillsborough County Fire Rescue truck already there. Her neighbors had called 911 and were frantic because they knew her dogs were probably inside.
Firefighters searched the house and found the other dogs already dead. They had the fire under control in about 30 minutes, department spokesman Corey Dierdorff said.
Investigators believe the fire started in the kitchen from some kind of electrical malfunction. The damage was limited mainly to the kitchen, but there was smoke and heat damage throughout the 67-year-old, wood-framed home.
Hicka kept the dogs confined to the living room and kitchen area. They apparently died from smoke inhalation, she said.
Hicka used to have a sticker on the house alerting firefighters to dogs inside but it faded and was eventually removed and not replaced.
Those stickers are helpful, Dierdorff said, but firefighters always search a burning structure as soon as they arrive if it's safe to do so. The department's vehicles are equipped with special oxygen masks to revive cats and dogs suffering from smoke inhalation.
"We're going to search the entire home for any type of savable life," he said. In Tuesday's fire, "We were already looking for animals because we knew what kind of establishment it was."
The house was the only structure on the property when Hicka bought it in 1990. She built the pet resort shortly after that, offering boarding for dogs, cats, birds and other small pets, as well as grooming and poodle breeding. That concrete block structure, with six "wings" of kennels, is safer than her old wooden house so customers shouldn't worry, Hicka said.
"I don't want this to taint our reputation," she said as she stood in the lobby, still wearing the clothes she was wearing the night before. Her white capri pants were dirt-stained and one of her knees had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. She thinks she fell trying to rescue Lacey.
In her grief, she had a reason to be thankful. Her sixth dog, a black 2-year-old standard poodle named Savannah, was being kept in the resort building when the fire broke out because she's in heat.
As reporters, customers and well-wishers came and went Wednesday morning, Savannah peered out from Hicka's office, barking and whining.
"She knows," Hicka said. "Dogs can sense these things."
Savannah was one of Star's puppies, and Hicka was already planning to breed her this week. Now that plan takes on a new and bittersweet significance.
"Lacey's line," Hicka said, "will live on."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.