After 2017 wildfires, pet owners take precautions to keep pets safe

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Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

Every minute counts in an emergency.

For people with pets, planning and practice can help you make the most of that precious time — and improve the chances your animals will survive.

“Your dog will probably come to you, but your cat is probably gonna go hide under a bed. Trying to find them in a timely fashion is difficult and you don’t have much time,” said Brian Whipple, operations manager for Sonoma County Animal Services.

It is impossible to know exactly how many animals perished during the 2017 wildfires, but broken-hearted families still carry the pain of losing a pet that hid during the mayhem, too terrified to respond to the calls of their desperate owners.

As the two-year annivesary of the wildfires approaches, experts are encouraging pet owners to prepare for the next disaster and draw up plans to safely care for their animals — and evacuate them if necessary.

Some situations, like an extended power outage, may simply require residents to have water, food, medicine and supplies on hand for several days, both for themselves and their animals.

Other emergencies — fire, flood or earthquake — may require pet owners to quickly evacuate themselves and their animals.

Portable kennels can be a valuable tool. It is critical to help your pets become comfortable with their kennel before an emergency strikes, said Lindsay McCall, director of animal care for the Humane Society of Sonoma County. She encourages keeping it out, open and part of the living environment, even serving treats in the kennel from time to time to help make it less scary.

Practicing evacuations is also important, McCall said. Make certain you can fit all of your animals’ crates into your vehicle; if you can’t, make arrangements to have someone help. Some smaller kennels are soft with shoulder straps, allowing you to keep your small pet next to you. Look for kennels with a slot or pocket for stashing medicine and important paperwork.

Whatever you’re doing to plan for yourself, plan the same way for your animals, Whipple said. That means having food, water and medicine for your pets, along with a file folder that contains names, contact numbers, photos and the animal’s vaccination history.

Whipple urged residents to sign up for SoCo Alert and Nixle to get pertinent information during emergencies, such as the location of evacuation shelters and the county’s mobile vet clinic.

During a disaster, Sonoma County sets up two kinds of shelters that take pets. The first, known as “co-habitated shelters,” place people and their animals in the same room. The Finley Center in Santa Rosa was used during the 2017 wildfires, when Sonoma County Animal Services supplied the shelter with crates and other supplies.

“Walking into that shelter, it was probably the quietest, most calm emergency evacuation shelter that I’ve ever been in,” said Whipple, who has been working disasters since 2005.

The second type, known as “co-located shelters,” house animals just outside the shelter. Camping gear might prove useful, allowing people to stay close to their animals. During the 2017 fires, mobile clinics operated by county Animal Services and Forgotten Felines were set up at the shelter.

Special Coverage

This story is part of a monthly series chronicling the rebuilding efforts in Sonoma County’s four fire zones: Coffey Park, Fountaingrove, the greater Mark West area and Sonoma Valley. Read all of the Rebuild North Bay coverage here.

If you cannot reach your animals to evacute them in time, call Sonoma County Animal Services for help. “We’ll be able to get out to the area and see if the animal is OK and provide food and water and a possible shelter-in-place situation for them,” said Whipple.

Microchipping your pet is one of the most important things you can do to ensure a rescued animal gets back to you quickly, said Dr. Kimberly Henry, a Santa Rosa veterinarian who helped out during the Northridge earthquake and recent Northern California wildfires. Pet owners should update the chip information, which often simply lists the telephone number for the office that chipped the pet. Putting collars and updated license tags on each pet, along with your name and phone number, can be helpful too.

Henry suggested pet owners place stickers on windows or doors identifying the number of pets in your home, a tool that can help rescuers. If the pets have been evacuated, it is important to note that information in a visible place near the stickers.

Keeping leashes and kennels near the door can be a big time-saver during an evacuation. Information about your pet and medicine should be kept as close to the kennel as possible. If there’s time, food, water and other daily supplies can also be grabbed and taken during an evacuation.

For people with horses, cows, pigs or other livestock, Whipple suggests keeping a file folder in the stall or pen containing identification, photos, vaccination records and contact information. Lead ropes, halters, water buckets and grain should also be stored close by.

“Just enough to get by for a few days,” said Whipple. “Even having a broom on hand, anything that you’d use on a daily basis, you’d want to have ready so you’ll have those things to help you take care of your animal.”

Putting a notice up at the entrance to your property showing the location of the animals can help rescuers move more quickly. Make sure to note if those animals have already been evacuated.

“Practice trailering your horse,” said Whipple. “A lot of people have horses that have never been in a trailer. During an emergency, stress is high and animals can feel stress coming from you, but if you practice regularly, loading and unloading, it’s gonna be a lot easier to get your horse into a trailer to be able to get out of there quicker.”

Henry and other veterinarians, first responders and organizations that work rescuing animals have formed the Community Animal Response Team, or CART, to assist Sonoma County Animal Services in the event of a disaster.

CART needs volunteers and will train them to help rescue animals, large and small. The group will also help neighborhoods put an emergency plan in place.

“I think that would be hugely valuable because the planning part of it is what’s gonna make things go better,” Henry said. “The more we can do at a local level, the more lives will be saved.”

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