Recent wildfires underscore the need for pet and livestock evacuation readiness. BY JESSE ROMAN
THE FAST-MOVING VALLEY FIRE in Northern California this fall scorched 40,000 acres in its first 12 hours and destroyed about 1,300 residences—many of which had pets living inside.
While no one has officially tracked how many animals were killed or injured in the blaze, a Facebook page for lost and found pets tells a sad tale. There are dozens of posts from desperate people looking for their missing dogs, cats, and horses, and numerous photos of animals found with burns. The number of animal casualties from the fire could be in the thousands, according to local rescue agencies.
“We know that lots of folks lost animals—almost everybody who lost homes had an animal or multiple animals in the house,” said Jeffrey Smith, the owner of Middletown Animal Hospital, which is located about 100 miles north of San Francisco in the heart of the fire’s destructive path. “No houses were partially burned. They were either untouched, or they were incinerated to dust.”
The fire began at about 1:20 p.m. on Saturday, September 12, and grew so fast that many residents who were out could not get home to rescue their animals or let them escape. Those who were home barely had time to open the gates to let their barn animals run free before fleeing themselves. “In other fires you get a sense of how the fire is moving, and there is a staged evacuation,” Smith said. “This fire was a run-for-your-life sort of situation.”
Lake Evacuation and Animal Protection (LEAP) is a highly trained group of animal control specialists and volunteers in Lake County, an area hard hit by the Valley Fire, who assist with animal evacuation and rescue during wildfire emergencies. In more typical wildfires, LEAP members in full protective gear work in coordination with fire agencies to evacuate pets ahead of a fire. However, the Valley Fire was already so fierce within the first two hours that the team was forced to drop back and wait for it to pass.
In the weeks that followed, even amid still-burning patches of forest, LEAP members visited about 700 addresses to check on pets left behind and assisted more than 3,400 animals, including cats, dogs, cows, goats, donkeys, and even emus and camels, said Bill Davidson, the director of Lake County Animal Control and a member of LEAP. It was a trying time.
“Every day we spent 10 to 15 hours running around checking addresses, finding animals, pounding on every door,” he said. “Unfortunately, many animals did die in the fire. If that was my pet, I would be devastated to see what I saw and find what my animal had to go through.” Among the animals that survived, the most common injuries were smoke inhalation and burned faces and feet, Smith and Davidson said.
Although extreme situations such as the Valley Fire may challenge even the most well-devised plans, NFPA and animal groups strongly encourage pet owners to plan ahead. That includes gathering pet necessities in one location well before the fire arrives so that both people and pets can make a quick escape in an emergency.
If all else fails, Davidson said, the most important thing is just getting out ahead of the fire, however you can. “We had one guy who left his home with six goats in the back of his BMW,” he said. “He showed up at our staging area and asked, ‘What do I do now?’ That’s where we can help.”