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(stock photo)

By J.M. Brown for MercuryNews.com

LA SELVA, CA – Walter Hiatt had two emergencies on his hands Monday afternoon and wasn’t sure which one to deal with first.

Hiatt, a 69-year-old building contractor, was frying chicken at his home on Mar Monte Avenue about 2 p.m. when Ruby, his pregnant 3-year-old Australian shepherd, crawled underneath his house to begin bearing her litter.

While he tried to coax the blue-eyed mother-to-be out of hiding, the oil he forgot about on the stove caught fire.

“All of the sudden, I hear an explosion,” Hiatt said, recalling the confusion that unfolded next. “The chicken I was going to fry exploded and caught the house on fire.”

Suddenly, he had a big choice to make.

“It’s hard to explain,” Hiatt said. “There was so much smoke when I opened the door, I didn’t know what to do. I was trying to go for the fire, but my dog is right there having puppies.”

As he watched the blaze consume his kitchen, Ruby crept back underneath the 1,800-square-foot house. As Hiatt’s girlfriend, Sandy Duff, called 911 about the blaze, the ever-determined Hiatt pulled the equally determined 150-pound Ruby from her subterranean refuge once more and placed her in the back of his pickup, which would become her birthing suite.

As firefighters knocked down the flames, Ruby, with Fire Marshal Carol Wallace acting as midwife, starting popping out the pups – four at last count. Hiatt said he’ll name at least one after the firefighters who battled the blaze – either Ray or Mike to honor firefighters Ray Welch, Ray Bensen or Mike Conrad.

Controlled within 20 minutes, the fire nonetheless destroyed Hiatt’s kitchen and spread to an attic above, leaving the house uninhabitable. Hiatt said he planned to stay by Ruby’s side as she continued giving birth every 45 minutes or so – there were 10 puppies in her last litter – and then stay overnight in his camper trailer until he can figure out his next step.

Units from Watsonville and Corralitos helped Aptos-La Selva Fire District crews fight the blaze at 162 Mar Monte Ave. No injuries were reported.

For Division Chief Jeff Terpstra of the Aptos-La Selva district, the incident provided an interesting take on the cat-in-a-tree story firefighters are famous for. It’s not everyday that they deliver puppies while hosing down flames, he said, adding, “It’s pretty cool.”