If you have been following the weather news, you might have guessed what this post was going to be about, am I right?
So, we had a little dress rehearsal for fire season a month ago. Here in California, we had a unseasonal storm that featured a ton of thunder and lightning and ignited hundred of wildfires all over our state. One fire started fairly close to my home, which triggered evacuation warnings and caused my husband and I to go through our evacuation checklist and get prepared to evacuate. At that time, I also had to drive my grandson to an airport that is three hours away, so he could fly home to his mom after spending a good bit of the summer here, so my husband was left with the burden of being ready to load up the dogs and go if the fire blew up.
Fortunately for me, the very local edition of the lightning-sparked fire was extinguished pretty rapidly. Within a few days, it was a non-event.
Elsewhere in the state, though, lightning from the same storm ignited fires that grew and grew. Tens of thousands of people all over the state were displaced by the fires – forced to evacuate their homes with just what they could pack into their vehicles. Hundreds later learned they had no homes to return to.
Getting Ready For an Evacuation
Other fires that were sparked into being in mid-August smoldered quietly in very sparsely populated parts of the state until recently, when a freak windstorm blew several of them into monsters. My husband and I woke up several times in the night, hearing a strong wind blowing the trees around and smelling smoke more strongly than in recent weeks (the smoky sky had been persistent but not awful previously). We woke up with the news that the fire that had been burning about 40 miles from us was moving FAST in our direction. In a matter of hours, we learned that our area was being given a warning: be ready to evacuate.
Given the wind, I took the warning quite seriously. I filled up both our car and our truck with gas, got cash, and started staging things that the dogs would need if we had to evacuate: a big soft crate, dog food, bowls, leashes, poop bags, their vet records. I put on their collars, the ones with my phone number stitched into them. I had a foster puppy here, too – a pup who was found with a badly broken leg and, while staying with me, had surgery the previous week to amputate the not-reparable leg. I put his medications and Otto’s in the “to go” pile near the back door.
As the afternoon wore on and the news got increasingly dramatic, I took my work computer apart and loaded it and all my backup drives and cameras into a big plastic tub and put it in the car. All evening, I kept thinking of things I wouldn’t want to live without and putting them into a suitcase, just in case. The wind was so awful.
At 11 pm, all of a sudden my phone started screeching with an emergency warning: Our area was being ordered to evacuate. Now. Mandatory.
Even with all that prior preparation, it took my husband and I over an hour to load everything that we had staged into the car and truck. Part of it was the stress brought on by the urgency of the evacuation order; it’s amazing how shaky you can get when the thing you’ve been preparing so hard for suddenly happens. Part of it has to do with my husband’s OCD; he has to keep checking and checking his list to make sure we’ve done all the things he wanted to do before we left: water the oak trees we planted in the spring, pull anything flammable away from the house, make sure the sprinklers are set to come on every day while we are gone, check the locks on all the outbuilding, etc. As I waited for him with the dogs in the car, I texted with a friend who had offered a place for us to land about 20 miles away, and talked to my sister on the phone; she and her husband were evacuating in another direction, headed to our sister-in-law’s house.
As we drove down the back roads headed for the two-lane highway that leads to my town, so much ash was swirling through the air, it looked like snow in the headlights. Every so often, whole blackened leaves swirled through the ash, too. The black leaves scared us; if whole leaves that had been burned could be carried more than 10 miles by the wind, surely burning embers could, too?
We arrived at my friend’s house at around 1 am. We had brought a tent and sleeping bags, but my friend ushered us into a spare bedroom that was all made up for us – so sweet! She collected her four little dogs, each of whom is a rescue from my friend’s long career in animal sheltering and each of whom was barking like the fiercest protectors of the property; she locked them all in her bedroom (my apologies to her husband!). I set up a huge soft crate in the bedroom, and after letting them go potty outside, put my young dog, Woody, and the foster puppy in the soft crate together. Then I went to bring Otto in the house – whoops! He didn’t like the tile floor he had to cross to get into the bedroom, and didn’t like the sound of the four barking little dogs in the other room. I could read his mind: “Mom, I’d feel a lot better sleeping in our car.” And so I made him a nice bed on the back seat, with the windows cracked and a non-spill bowl of water.
When I got back into the house, my husband was in bed, and the puppy was sprawled, sound asleep, taking up far more than half of the huge soft crate. Though Woody often slept with the puppy at home, he didn’t seem to feel comfortable sleeping with the pup in the crate and he was sitting up, leaning miserably against the side of the crate, making a Woody-shaped bulge in the fabric. I unzipped the side zipper as quietly as I could, and he slithered out the side exit, leaving the foster pup sleeping soundly – an evacuation miracle! The pup had a big aversion to crates in general, which I had been working on by allowing him to chew on meaty bones and food-stuffed Kong toys only when he was in a crate, but he was still prone to kicking up a big fuss once his treat was over and he realized the door was closed. Even when we woke in the morning he was quiet!
When I took the puppy and Woody outside to let all three dogs go potty and to give them breakfast, I was shocked by how much ash had accumulated on every surface, just like snow would have.
The news of the fire was awful; it had traveled about 30 miles in the previous 20 or so hours and it had burned through several small communities. As of that morning, it was stopped about 7 miles from my sister’s house and 10 miles from mine. We wouldn’t be going home soon.
Next, we delivered the foster pup to his adoptive family; they had been prepared to take him the following week, once his stitches had been removed, but given the evacuations, this was going to work out better. And I’m a little embarrassed to report that we spent the next two nights in a nice hotel in the state capitol about an hour even farther away from the fire.
Relief: The dogs were perfect gentlemen in the hotel, though the hotel charged us a $100 “nonrefundable pet deposit,” an amusing oxymoron. They earned it though, because Otto left a considerable amount of red hair on the dark brown carpet. Also, the air was better (though still smoky), good enough to walk around the park that surrounds the state capitol building. Woody especially liked watching the squirrels that leap from tree to tree in the hundred-year-old trees in the park.
Just as we were having dinner in our room on the second night, I received a text: Our neighborhood was being downgraded to an evacuation warning again; we could go home. Comfortable as we were, and having already paid for the night, we stayed until the next morning.
Emergency Animal Shelters Are No Walk in the Park
Well, it was a nice vacation of sorts. Time to get home and get to work – volunteer work at the emergency shelter set up to take in evacuated pets and animals that had been rescued by first responders from the fire. I had spent weeks and weeks helping care for dogs who were displaced by the infamous Camp Fire two years ago, and had taken the training sessions provided by the North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG), the organization that runs the shelter. Several people I had met and worked with and had become friends with during the Camp Fire had already been hard at work at the emergency shelter; more than 150 dogs and at least 100 cats, bunnies, pet birds, and more were already at the shelter.
Emergency animal shelters are sort of like Red Cross shelters: Technically, people can go to Red Cross shelters and have a place to sleep, to eat, and to be safe, but it’s not exactly comfortable and it can be crowded and highly stressful. Similarly, in emergency animal shelters, we keep all the animals safe and feed them, but the accommodations are not very nice. All the animals are kept in wire crates, which might be stacked two high, and which are all crammed into rooms in weird former-hospital buildings owned by the county. It’s loud from the barking of stressed dogs and a little too warm (we keep fans running). We position flattened cardboard boxes between the crates and use sheets to try to block the views of the ones who get triggered by seeing other dogs walk by, but there is a lot of barking no matter what we do.
There are two types of animals in the shelter: Those who were brought to the shelter for safe-keeping by families who had to evacuate, and those who were brought in by first responders (or anyone fleeing the area) who happened to find them. Sometimes people are looking for these “stray” animals, but sometimes, their owners don’t look for them and they end up getting sent to the regular county animal shelter like any other stray animal. This will undoubtedly happen to a number of the animals in a few weeks’ time.
It takes a village to care for animals displaced by emergencies
It takes a small army of volunteers to just barely manage to take care of all the animals’ most basic needs. I can say with confidence that all the dogs get out of their crates twice a day; if we have extra people, they get out three times. But that’s all. They all get fed twice a day and their crates are cleaned at that time. Some dogs can “hold it” between walks; some can’t, and some don’t try.
In case you are wondering, it takes about 10-12 people about six hours to feed, clean the cages, and take 150 dogs outside for a bare five minute walk. When we have more people, it can get done fast, plus dirty bowls that have been stacked can be washed, crates that have been broken can be swapped out, dogs who are not getting along well with their neighbors or in their locations can be moved to a different spot that might help them keep calmer, and so on. There are more people – I don’t know how many – taking care of the cats, birds, and exotic animals. Our efforts are being directed by the county animal control staff and the most experienced NVADG volunteers; they take on the tasks I don’t know much about: receiving animals from first responders and evacuated owners, answering phone calls from owners looking for their lost pets, ordering animal-keeping supplies and food and drink to keep the volunteers from collapsing, taking donations of bedding and food and paper towels, coordinating veterinary care for the sick and injured animals in our care, and more.
For the first few days of the emergency, pets were being brought into the shelter by the carload. Over the next few days, people like me who had been allowed to return home started picking up their animals, but even more animals were getting brought into the shelter by fire fighters, search and rescue teams, and other first responders. At some point, the county set up a separate shelter to intake just the animals found by teams searching the area for survivors and assessing the fire damage, so I have seen only one burned animal so far. (That’s a story I hope to be able to tell you soon.) The “stray” animals already in our shelter are going to be moved within a day or two to this newer “temporary” shelter, and animal control officers borrowed from other communities will be brought in to care for them. It’s hoped that the animals brought in by their owners will all be picked up within a week or so – or, if the owners have lost their homes and decide they can’t keep their pets, they might be signed over to the county and go to our local shelter for possible adoption. This was a sad event that happened many times after the Camp Fire – although eventually, months down the road, all of the adoptable animals got adopted.
Many displaced animals come from underprivileged areas, and it shows
People who know California only by reputation might think it’s all urban and upscale. The fact is, where I live in far northern California, it’s rural and low-income. The area that most recently burned is very low-income and very rural. Translate this to mean that many of the pets we volunteers are caring for have had little in the way of routine veterinary care. Most of the dogs are mixed-breeds; many of the dogs are intact. Super long nails are super common. Many of the dogs have fleas and flea-allergy dermatitis. Some dogs are way too thin; some are way too fat – like, if they were humans, they’d weigh 400 pounds. We are caring for 4-month-old pups who are terrified of humans and can’t be touched, and 14-year-old dogs who have to be carried to go potty. We have some fit, healthy, well-cared-for dogs, too, but they seem to be in the minority. Also, they don’t stick in our brains the way the sad dogs do. Some of the sad dogs’ sad states are just so haunting. It gives us just a little relief to take a few extra minutes to lavish a little extra care on some of these dogs – rooting through the piles of donated blankets and towels for extra thick ones for the sore, old dogs to sleep on at night, or hunting through the donated foods for some decent ones to give the extra skinny dogs.
Coming home to our clean, well-fed dogs, sleeping on their extra thick beds in the house, feels so strange after triaging these underprivileged dogs.
I know that not everyone lives in an area where they are subject to the specific danger of wildfires – but just about everyone lives somewhere that experiences some form of natural disaster occasionally, whether it’s flooding, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, or that wind/rain thing that happened in Ohio recently. I implore everyone to be ready to respond to the possibility of having to leave your home with your pets in case of emergency, and to do whatever you have to do to NOT have to take your animals to the sort of shelter I have been laboring in for days now, if you can possibly help it. Bring or keep your animals with you if you possibly can. Cultivate a network of friends or family members who live at a reachable distance (but not so close that they are in the same boat as you in case of a disaster), and offer them mutual aid; if they need help, help them, and vice versa. And if you possibly can help the folks (and their pets) who don’t have these resources following a disaster, please do. You will meet some really amazing folks who are also helping – and you will never be able to feel sorry for your own circumstances again.