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Devin Phebus can’t stop thinking about his mama dog who stayed with her puppies, unwilling to leave their side as the fire raged around her.

Sixteen dogs, including two litters of puppies, died in the fire that engulfed Phebus’ Scottsdale home near 86th Street and Thomas Road Thursday evening.

“I just feel kind of empty inside,” Devin Phebus, 26, told The Arizona Republic.

Phebus, who said he operates an “unofficial” rescue shelter for dogs, said he got off work about 9:30 p.m. and arrived home to find his roof engulfed in flames.

“First thing I thought was run in there and grab anyone (dogs) that I could,” Phebus said.

He spotted his dog Lilly, a bluenose pit bull. He made a dash for her.

“I opened the door and it was pitch black and smoky,” Phebus said. “I know the layout of my house. I was able to get into my room. I was able to scoop her up.”

Phebus placed Lilly safely in his car and ran back to save two litters of 2-month-old puppies and four other adult dogs.

It was too late.

“The fire started picking up like crazy.” Phebus said.

One mother stayed close to her puppies.

Phebus said the mama dog should have been able to escape, run out of the room. He thinks she didn’t want to leave without her babies.

“That’s when I was at a complete loss,” he said. “I couldn’t fathom what was going on.”

Fire crews from Scottsdale, Tempe and Phoenix responded to the scene Thursday evening to find heavy flames emerging from the back of the home with several dogs inside, according to Scottsdale Fire Department spokeswoman Lori Schmidt.

Firefighters reported that they found 16 deceased dogs and managed to save eight. But Phebus said the correct figure is 15 and nine.

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Mama and Khaleesi, the litters’ mothers, Max and Loki, two adult pit bulls, and the puppies died in the fire.

On Friday, a Scottsdale fire spokesman said they are still investigating the scene and haven’t found the cause of the fire.

Phebus has moved into a hotel. His friends are caring for his dogs until he can find another place to live.

On Saturday, at one friend’s home, he played with four of his dogs. One sable-colored pit bull jumped up, put his paws on Phebus’ chest and licked his face.

Neighbors unaware of ‘unofficial’ shelter

Neighbors within the community were unaware Phebus operated an unofficial shelter carrying more than 20 dogs.

“I knew of one German shepherd. I’ve never seen any of the other dogs,” Danica Gandara, a neighbor who lives across the street, told The Republic on Friday.  

Nicholas Ragland, a new homeowner in the area, thought it was his home that was on fire when he arrived at the neighborhood Thursday night.

“Fire trucks and police cars were driving by super fast, and in my mind I was like ‘Oh my God, I hope it’s not our house,’ ” he said.

Ragland also didn’t know there were so many dogs living in his neighbor’s house.

“I just thought it was a few dogs. If you have that many dogs in your home, someone should be there at all times,” he said.

Phebus said he works two jobs to manage the expenses of a home, which he said was given to him after his grandmother passed about eight years ago, and provide food and other resources for all of his dogs.

“I started off with one dog as a coping mechanism after my grandma passed away,” Phebus said.

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Eventually, he said, he learned of a few dogs that were mistreated by their owners. He took them in, too.

“Words travel really quickly when a person is looking” to find an abused dog a home, he said. “I have a heavy heart for dogs.”

Over the years, the number of dogs he took in increased, some of which gave birth to even more puppies.

“I didn’t have the proper certifications to be an up-and-going type of rescue,” he said. “But I can’t turn down a dog.” 

Phebus said he planned to give the puppies to a shelter once they were older and weaned. A friend started a GoFundMe page to help Phebus recover from the fire and care for the dogs.

While some neighbors sympathized, they also questioned the safety of keeping so many dogs in one home without proper certifications.

“It seems really unhealthy,” Ragland said.

Some neighbors wondered why it wasn’t a city violation to house so many dogs.

No city codes violated

Mike Phillips, Scottsdale’s public-affairs manager, said Scottsdale doesn’t regulate housing dogs unless there is a safety hazard.

“The city of Scottsdale’s codes and ordinances does not have a limit on the number of household pets,” he said.

The city does enforce ensuring that domestic animals must be kept in a sanitary environment so they do not become a public health, safety or welfare nuisance.

Phillips suggested that a homeowners association may enforce certain restrictions including the allowable number of pets.

Phebus does not live in an HOA community.

On Saturday, Phebus held a small brown dog in his arms. The three other dogs waited their turn for licks and hugs.

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