Fire. The word strikes fear into any pet owner. For those of us living in areas constantly visited by wildfires, it can be positively terrifying. As a pet expert and pet owner of a number of animals, the fear of dealing with forest fires is very real where I live. I’ve been through seven or so wildfires in both Colorado and Montana and have had to evacuate a kennel of 25 dogs and one cat.
The Boy Scouts got it right, especially when it comes to fires. Be prepared is my motto, too, and it should be yours, if you live in an area where wildfires occur. Don’t wait to make a plan when you’re faced with possible evacuations. During a wildfire, everything gets confusing and that’s why you need to plan ahead, especially when you own pets or other animals.
Know Your Escape Routes
In any emergency, it’s good to know how you can get out of your area with your pets. Don’t rely on a particular road being open – plan on having at least two escape routes (more is better). Look at the lay of the land. Ask yourself that if a fire were to sweep through one escape route, where would you go? Fire can move very fast and block off an escape route within minutes.
Know How You’re Getting Everyone Out
To paraphrase the US Marines and Navy Seals, leave no pet behind. That means having a plan and a mechanism for getting all your animals out. In the past fires I’ve lived through, I’ve seen plenty of horse people and dog owners in a panic because they didn’t have a way to evacuate all their animals. This may sound harsh, but if you can’t evacuate your entire crew, you need to rethink your strategy or find new homes for your animals. The last thing you want is to have your animals die a horrific death in a fire because you couldn’t get them all out. In a fire, you may have enough time to only get everyone loaded once and moved out.
Know Where You’re Going to Stay
Now is the time to arrange a place to stay before the fire happens – not in the middle of the evacuation. Ask your friends and family members now if they’re willing to take you, pets and all, into their homes. Don’t assume this will automatically happen. If necessary, find hotels within various distances away from your home that will accept you with pets. Keep their number handy. Often emergency shelters won’t admit animals, so it is best to have a plan before you’re faced with being turned away because you have a pet.
Have an Emergency Pet Bag
In an evacuation, you may have little time to pack and get out. Have all your pets’ records and medicines in one spot so that you can grab them and go. If you can, have a couple of days’ food, bowls, leashes and anything else you can think of that you might need. Keep it with your own evacuation bag, just in case.
When a Fire Breaks Out
During the hot, dry months, keep an ear to the radio and local news. They’re not always on top of wild fires and often the information may be sketchy. Keep an eye on the sky for smoke in your home’s direction, especially if you work or are out during the day. Pay attention to what the National Weather Service calls “Red Flag Days,” where the wind is supposed to be strong and the humidity is low – these are prime times for wild fires.
Don’t wait for emergency personnel to tell you when to leave. Fires are fast moving and unpredictable; often emergency personnel will show up at your doorstep and tell you that you have five minutes to get out – if you’re lucky. Most evacuations with pets, especially if you have quite a few, take much longer than you would think.
Myths Surrounding Animals and Fires
There are plenty of myths regarding animals and fires. One is to turn loose animals and let them try to escape the blaze. In my own experience, this shouldn’t be done. In the smoke and confusion, loose animals such as dogs, cats and horses may run towards the fire, not away from it. What’s more, a loose animal is a threat to not only itself but to other people. Your pet or horse may be hit by a car or truck. Your dog may or may not be picked up or may get lost wandering for miles. What’s more, some fires are so deadly and spread so fast that there is no way a fast animal could even outrun the flames.
In many circumstances, emergency animal workers may be on the scene to gather up animals at people’s homes and may put them in a temporary shelter. Unless the fire is bearing down on you, don’t release your animals. It’s much better to take them with you.
Margaret H. Bonham, The Complete Guide to Mutts, 2004.