Protecting Pets From Wildfire

By Gary Linehan June 15, 2016 08:27



Mountain Ranch resident Felicia Dunn with Odin and Kota

For an animal evacuation checklist, click here. For our story on “Hard Choices: Leaving Animals Behind,” click here.

The lives of family members come first in the event of wildfire evacuation – and for many, household pets and larger animals fall into this category.

That’s true for Felicia Dunn, 33, and her husband Josh, whose Mountain Ranch home burned during the 2015 Butte Fire. Like many residents, they were not prepared for the threat they faced from the fast-moving flames.

After learning her sister had evacuated from Pine Grove, to the north, Felicia headed home from work. She first packed the pets’ gear and then the couple’s personal belongings and paperwork.

“The dogs are our kids,” says Felicia, assistant manager of the Hospice Thrift Store in Angels Camp. “My attitude is, ‘Come hell or high water, you’re coming with me – you’re not getting left behind.’ ”

Watching the fire advance ridge by ridge, Felicia and Josh, 37, anxiously debated when to leave and what to take. They had three times the required 100-foot clearance around their home, she says, and never imagined they would have to evacuate.

“You get complacent,” Felicia admits. “We had seen previous wildfires over the years, but nothing like this. It was a monster.”

She and Josh escaped at about 3:30am with their Siberian huskies, Odin and Kota, and two cats, but were forced to leave behind a third cat they could not find in the darkness. Driving out on side roads, they called neighbors and knocked on doors to urge people to leave. Within hours many of those homes, including the Dunns’, were gone.

Looking back, Felicia feels fortunate that they and all but one of their pets survived. Her advice? Take disaster preparation seriously.

“Don’t think it can’t happen to you,” she advises. “Pack as if you’re going on a two-week vacation with your pets. And keep your charged cellphone and car keys close with you the whole time.”

Animal rescue groups in Amador, Calaveras and Tuolumne counties agree that preparation is key to survival both for people and pets.

“Even if they don’t have pets, the idea of getting ready prepares the rest of the community as well,” says Jeane Kennedy of Calaveras Animal Disaster Shelter, which formed the year after the 2013 Rim Fire scorched 257,314 acres in Tuolumne County.

CADS sets up animal shelters during life-threatening situations and provides emergency preparedness education to the community year-round, says Kennedy, 68, a retired horticultural consultant.

“We saw the need during the Rim Fire. That was the beginning of it,” she notes.

CADS was ready when the Butte Fire erupted in Amador County last Sept. 9. The blaze quickly spread south across Calaveras County, killing two people, burning 70,868 acres and destroying 549 homes over a harrowing three weeks. The fire’s toll included countless pets, livestock and wildlife.

“When people are preparing their animals, they are preparing themselves also,” says Kennedy, a horse owner and lifelong animal lover who lives in Copperopolis. “Not only are you thinking about your pets, but you are also doing things like calling neighbors and developing relationships, so it really is a community effort.”

Animal support groups in all three counties have compiled guides for owners of dogs, cats, goats, horses and other animals large and small, available online (see “Animal evacuation checklist”). They also open animal shelters during emergencies and work to educate residents on the importance of year-round preparation.


Amador County Animal Response Team volunteers prepare for evacuees

Another volunteer group, the Amador County Animal Response Team (ACART), was founded in 2009 to educate residents and operate shelters for domestic animals and livestock during disasters.

“We recognized a service like this was needed in our county because there was no official organization to do it,” says Jon Baldwin, vice president. “All our volunteers are certified disaster-service workers and all are trained in basic first aid for people and animals. We also have trauma-response training.”

The group’s first big test was the 2014 Sand Fire in Amador and El Dorado counties. That effort was dwarfed by the Butte, during which ACART volunteers handled about 450 animals – from hamsters to horses – at the Amador County Fairgrounds in Plymouth. Most of those animals belonged to Calaveras County residents, Baldwin says.

“We work with adjoining counties, and they support us as well,” he says.

Amador volunteers, including several veterinarians on call around the clock, donated about 2,000 hours. ACART works under the direction of Amador County Animal Control but receives no county funding.

“We have about 20 volunteers right now and are always looking for more,” says Baldwin, 74, who runs a software company from his home in Volcano. “Most of us have day jobs, and there are a few retired people and a couple of ranchers.

“My wife and I have always been animal lovers,” he adds, “and this is a needed service for the community.”

Volunteers meet year-round for continuing education, with training generally held on the second Wednesday of each month. “We try to be capable of handling every animal species we run into,” Baldwin says.

ACART volunteers do not take part in evacuating animals, he adds. “It’s very dangerous unless people are well trained for it.”

Kennedy agrees. “The problem is going in with trailers while people are trying to flee. Some of our roads are not wide enough for two trailers to pass. That’s why we’re really focused on being prepared and getting out on time.”

Tuolumne County is forming a volunteer program to assist with evacuating larger animals, says Jennifer Clarke, 57, county Animal Control manager.

Her department handles sheltering and evacuations of animals during major emergencies. During the Rim Fire, volunteers with the Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Posse and a horsemen’s group in Oakdale also stepped in to help with sheltering and feeding horses and other large animals.

“It is always wonderful to see how many people in the community are willing to help during a crisis,” Clarke says.

But more help and preparation are needed to handle a catastrophic fire like a Rim or Butte.

Answering that need, Animal Control and the county Office of Emergency Services are coordinating a new volunteer effort, Team ELITE – Evacuation of Livestock in Tuolumne Emergencies.

As envisioned, the county will be divided into four service areas with 15 to 20 volunteers in each. “Right now we’re building the framework and recruiting volunteers,” Clarke says. “We don’t see it being fully functional until next year.”


ACART volunteers help little evacuees from Butte Fire

With volunteers taking the lead on larger animals, the Animal Control staff – 10 permanent employees and three relief workers – can concentrate on the sheltering and evacuation of small animals and still manage their regular duties, Clarke says.

JoLynn Miller, 33, of Sonora, is leading the Team ELITE effort. She is the Central Sierra 4-H Youth Development Advisor in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Amador and El Dorado counties. “We’re hoping to take some of the load off of Animal Control,” she says.

Miller, who moved to Tuolumne County four years ago to take the 4-H job, has 16 years’ experience with the Red Cross as a lifeguard and first responder, then as a first aid instructor and Disaster Action Team member. During the Butte Fire, she says, “I was there on day one setting up shelters.”

She started riding with the Twain Harte Horsemen about a year ago when the group was talking about forming a trained volunteer team to rescue large animals. They asked her to lead it.

“It’s important, so I’m willing to make it happen,” Miller says.

When deployed, ELITE volunteers would send teams to assess the number of animals in danger. With the permission of fire and law enforcement authorities, they would then evacuate the animals.

Lessons learned from past disasters are driving these community efforts. In past emergencies, Kennedy notes, some foothill residents have ignored evacuation orders rather than leave their animals behind – just as those in New Orleans did when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

“They knew that hurricane was coming for days … but the Red Cross doesn’t allow animals (in shelters) except service animals, so people with dogs and cats toughed it out,” says Kennedy. “That was one of the lessons learned – that you need to do something for the animals, too.”

Calaveras volunteers are trained in FEMA’s Community Emergency Response Team program, which teaches basic disaster-response skills. Trained volunteers can then assist when first responders are not immediately available.

Kennedy says CADS also works with the Red Cross.

“They typically use elementary schools as shelters for people, and we’ll talk to the schools to see if it’s feasible to open animal shelters there. It’s a lot less stressful for the animals if their owners can walk them instead of a stranger, and less stressful for the owners knowing their pet is nearby.”

Henning Schreiber, manager of Calaveras County Animal Services, is also in charge of CADS, which operates on community donations. Animal Services has about eight regular volunteers and 200 more available to help with emergency shelters.

Central Sierra wildfires have taken a heavy toll in the past three years. The Rim Fire eclipsed all others in terms of land, becoming the third largest in California history. It claimed 11 homes and about 150 head of cattle, plus an unknown number of forest animals. The 2014 Sand Fire torched 4,240 acres and 20 homes.

“The Butte Fire was a different story,” says Clarke, who also assisted in the Calaveras County blaze. “It was way more devastating in terms of destruction. It was a tragedy.”


Julie Hale and dog Rotor, reunited after the Rim Fire

In addition to the toll in lives and property, the Butte’s toll on wildlife and domestic animals was enormous. There are many stories of grief-stricken owners fleeing the flames. Kennedy notes that some were forced to leave behind horses that perished. In another case, a man chose to shoot his three trapped llamas rather than let them burn to death.

“We don’t know how many animals were there to begin with and how many survived or were brought out and cared for by their owners or friends,” Schreiber says. “The big story from the Butte Fire is how much help CADS received from the community, veterinarians and local and regional businesses.”

These animal protection groups agree their services should be a last resort and that evacuation planning, preparation and practice well in advance are keys to pet survival. Kennedy says new residents in particular may not be aware of the region’s fire danger when they arrive.

“They don’t know about the response time and our small roads,” she says. “They don’t understand the evacuation process and how that can block the roads. Our arteries are very limited, and you might only have one or two choices. No one’s going to be there in five minutes and save your behind like in the Bay Area.

“You’d better be prepared yourself rather than waiting for someone to come get you – have a plan and practice that plan in order to evacuate.”

Copyright © 2016 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Gary Linehan June 15, 2016 08:27
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