How Animal Rescue Workers Save Beloved Pets Displaced By Wildfires

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Early in the morning of November 8th, 2018, a fire broke out near the power transmitters at Poe Dam in Butte County, California. A field worker took the first photos of the flames at 6:44 am. By 8 am, the wildfire had reached the small town of Paradise, about 15 miles away. Winds kicked up to 50 miles per hour and the fire spread at a breakneck pace. The loss of cell towers and the speed of the blaze meant that people had to assess the situation on their own, drop everything, and evacuate.

The Camp Fire, as it would later be named, went on to become the most damaging and deadly wildfire in the history of the state. 85 civilian lives were lost; nearly 20,000 structures were destroyed or severely damaged.

When a wildfire spreads with such ferocity, things that feel vital to your life and livelihood are left behind — passports, paperwork, keepsakes… even pets. In Paradise, the inability to evacuate animals was compounded by the fact that by 8 am, most people had already gone to work. They couldn’t get back home to save their dogs or cats, even if they’d dared risk it. It was the perfect storm of random circumstance colliding with nature’s fury, leading to tragedy on an unprecedented scale. By November 20th, the blaze had consumed 153,336 acres of land and cost $16.5 billion in damage. Thousands of pets had been left behind.

“During the Camp Fire, we had seven different shelters,” John Maretti, Executive Director of the North Valley Animal Disaster Group says.

Maretti and the animal rescuers of NVADG had to wait for firefighters to give them an “okay” to go into Paradise and surrounding areas to rescue pets. The NVADG ended up “rescuing 3,000 pets and sheltering 6,000” in the wake of the fire, according to the group’s records.

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The fact that so many pets were left behind at all goes to illustrate the severity of the Camp Fire. Tracy Mohr, Animal Services Manager for the City of Chico Animal Shelter, explains the scenario in chilling detail: “People literally fled for their lives, and some people actually burned to death in their vehicles while fleeing, and in their beds — unaware of the fire because it moved so fast.”

By the time the fires had passed, Animal Services in Chico and the NVADG had already snapped into action. Over the course of just a few days, the NVADG received 10,000 calls through their hotline, resulting in 3,500 requests for pet rescues. The job that lay ahead was monumental and daunting, but the team was ready.

“We’ve trained with the local fire departments for 20 years,” Maretti explains. “We have the same fire-resistant clothing and radios that they use.”

While people were trying to come to grips with the devastation, animal rescue crews went into the still smoldering neighborhoods with food, water, catch poles, and first aid kits. The seven temporary shelters operated for three solid months, dealing solely with lost pets. As more and more animals were found and sheltered, the community rallied around the town of Paradise and Butte County. Chico Shelter’s Tracy Mohr tells us that her shelter took in 231 animals.

“This included all of the animals evacuated from the Paradise Animal Shelter the morning of the fire,” Mohr notes. “Plus the stray animals brought to us by evacuees and first responders the first few days of the fire, and animals transferred from the temporary NVADG shelters to our facility for safety reasons.”

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As burn areas were opened back up, people started streaming in and reclaiming their pets. But these joyful reunions were often bittersweet. “Unfortunately, many lost their homes and were unable to accept their animals,” Maretti says.

Animals ended up having to go out for adoption due to the loss of life and property. In fact, nearly ten months later, there are still a few cats and dogs in shelters, awaiting new homes. As of August 4th, 2019, “only one dog and three cats from the fire remain at the Chico Animal Shelter,” Mohr says. Of the over 6,000 animals that went through the NVADG rescue shelters, “300 cats and 27 dogs were relocated to local animal shelters for adoption when the emergency shelters closed,” according to NVADG records.

In January 2019, the smoke has cleared and 160 volunteers lined up to go through the NVADG’s animal rescue training program, a record number. The local community seems determined to be more prepared the next time a wildfire roars their way. How, exactly? The NVADG offers advice on how to make sure you can take your pet with you on their website. But in essence, it boils down to one salient point: Have a plan in place. Know what you’re able to do if you and your pets get trapped. Know what you’ll need to do if roadblocks go up and you can’t get to your animals.

Perhaps most importantly, know the people at your local shelters. People like Maretti and Mohr. These are the folks who are going to fight with everything they’ve got to rescue and care for your pets. Heroes on the front lines, dealing with the tremendous collateral damage of wildfires, working tirelessly to save the lives of animals in need.

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