As communities in Northern California devastated by the Butte and Valley wildfires begin the arduous effort of rebuilding, animal rescue groups and veterinary hospitals are working to care for the countless non-human creatures that have been displaced and injured by the blazes.
There’s no official tally of animal injuries or fatalities, but animal control officer Shirley Zindler noted there are “many thousands of animals affected by the fires through death, injury or displacement.” Zindler is an animal control officer in Sonoma County, but she’s also been working on animal rescues throughout Lake County, the county hardest hit by the Valley Fire. The Valley and Butte Fires claimed at least six human lives and destroyed more than 1,000 homes.
The Valley Fire, Zindler said, was particularly perilous for pets because it started so suddenly, people had almost no time to prepare.
“It was chaos,” she told The Huffington Post. “The fire came through so fast and so hot, people didn’t have time to grab their animals.” In some cases, people had only “literally minutes” to evacuate. In others, people simply weren’t at home when they realized they had to flee, and weren’t able to get back to their residences in time.
Karen Schaver, director of nonprofit Orphan Dog Rescue and a member of disaster response group Lake Evacuation and Animal Protection, described rescuing two dogs whose owner simply couldn’t get to them.
“We broke the door down and got the dogs, who were still in their crates … I was in contact with the owner, who could get not past barricades,” she told HuffPost in an email. She added that Orphan Dog is now boarding some dogs whose owners were able to save their pets, but now lack homes themselves and need a place for the canines to stay temporarily.
With the fires largely contained, the dramatic, fast-paced rescues are mostly over, but there’s a huge amount of work ahead for animal shelters and veterinary clinics.
“Early last week … we were still pulling horribly burned cats out of the wreckage,” Zindler said. But now, she added, “The immediate crisis is over, but you’ve got thousands of people without homes, animals roaming loose.”
Veterinarian Jeff Smith with Middletown Animal Hospital in Middletown, California, said his clinic — which only had phone service restored on Tuesday — treated about 500 animals in the first two weeks of blazes in Lake County, about half in the clinic itself and half in the field.
And not all those cases were for burns. He noted that in one case, they treated a dog that had been shot because it was roaming loose. Other displaced, newly stray animals have eaten things that they shouldn’t have.
In many cases, Smith said, they’ve been treating animals for their immediate needs, then shipping them to other animal hospitals outside of the area. He noted that Middletown is treating all animals with injuries related to the wildfires totally free of charge, which has been made possible partially by a GoFundMe account.
Smith said that veterinary efforts have been largely focused on domestic animals, though they have treated a small wild animals, like birds, that people have brought into the clinic.
The biggest challenge for animal groups has been finding space for all of the displaced animals, Schaver said. Lake County Animal Care and Control has had to transport some animals to shelters outside of the county temporarily.
Zindler said the best way to help displaced and injured animals is to donate to animal hospitals and shelters in Northern California that are working with animals. She noted the excellent work of Middletown, and added that Lake County Animal Care and Control “has been doing a wonderful job” with the difficult situation. But there’s no shortage of other groups, some of which can be found here, that can also use donations of money and supplies.
People local to the area, who are able to, can also volunteer their time. Friends of Calaveras Animal Services, which operates a shelter in San Andreas, is just one organization that recently put out a request for volunteers, noting they have multitudes of dogs, cats, snakes, horses and steers coming through their facility.
Those who missing pets after the Valley Fire should check Valley Fire Animals, a website set up to reunite owners with their furry friends. On Tuesday, Lake County Animal Care and Control also posted several resources that those searching for pets should call, which can be found here.
Schaver also offered advice for those who want to help ensure their pets’ safety in the case of natural disasters.
“Socialize your animals so that rescue workers can get them contained and transported swiftly and safely,” she said. “Get them used to crates and cars. Leave placards on your doors notifying recuse workers about the number and type of animals you have inside.” She also stressed the importance of making sure your house number is large and clearly visible for rescue workers who may be trying to find a specific residence.
Though the damage the wildfires has done has been horrific, Smith has been heartened to see community members work to help one another.
“It’s been a terrible disaster but it’s been nice to see the human response,” he said. “I think we’re entering the hard, more difficult part of the work.”
Contact the author of this article at Hilary.Hanson@huffingtonpost.com
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