For the past day or two, my Facebook feed has been inundated with “lost” animal postings related to the Valley Fire in Lake County, California.
Except that many of these animals were not lost, they were “turned loose”, “let go”, or “set free”, left to fend for themselves against what is, so far, the most destructive wildland fire in the western states this year.
Dogs, pigs, cats, horses, and goats have been abandoned by evacuating owners. Let me be 100% clear here - these animals cannot survive on their own in a disaster. Even wild animals get burned over and killed during wildland fires. Domestic pets don’t stand a chance against walls of flame and heavy, drifting smoke. Unlike humans, they can’t listen to evacuation instructions or read signs that would point them to a safe direction.
In his book “Young Men and Fire”, Norman MacLean describes the “three deaths” a wildland firefighter suffers when caught in a fire - first the exhaustion from trying to run, causing physical collapse; second, smoke inhalation as the fire closes in and sucks oxygen from the air, suffocating those in its path; third, the burning, as flesh, hair, skin, and bone are consumed by flame, leaving seared remains behind. This happens to people and animals - deer, cougars, squirrels - fish in streams and ponds die as their water is poisoned and heated by falling ash and embers. Don’t let it happen to your pets.
Fire is not the only danger, though - any time an animal runs loose, it runs the risk of being hit by a car. In the chaos of an evacuation and a fire, that risk increases drastically with fleeing residents, responding emergency vehicles, and poor visibility from smoke.
We, as pet owners, have an absolute responsibility to our pets to care for them, even in a disaster. For 14 years, the federal government has been stressing emergency preparedness to the American public. For ten years, the importance of planning to include your pets has been included, after we all saw how many animals were left behind to drown, dehydrate, and starve during Hurricane Katrina.
Numerous government agencies and animal welfare groups have made planning resources available online. I will provide links below. There is no excuse for failing to plan.
California’s fire season started months ago. The past few fire seasons have been bad, and this one is bad, too. Decades ago, CDF (now Cal Fire) recommended creating thirty feet of defensible space around your home. In 2005, it was changed to one hundred feet. Firefighters are not required to defend your home or its contents from a wildland fire if you have less than 100’ of defensible space around your home. Please stop ignoring this. When you do so you are putting the lives of firefighters, as well as your pets at risk.
It is difficult enough to reunite lost pets with their families during the best of times. During a massive disaster such as this, it becomes extremely unlikely that an abandoned pet will be returned to its family, safe and sound.
Plan. Plan SOMETHING in advance, even if that plan is “Bribe an Uber driver with cocaine and share cans of Alpo with the dog because I forgot human food”
Do not leave your pets behind or leave them to fend for themselves. If it’s not safe for you, it is not safe for your animals.
Humane Society of the United States on Disaster Preparedness:
Cal Fire tips for evacuation and shelter-in-place of livestock and pets:
ASPCA Disaster Preparedness:
Louisiana SPCA Disaster Preparedness (they learned a lot from Katrina)