Note to reader: You can skip over this initial story by using this link here so you can get to the important stuff, this is merely my personal experience that I believe highlights how important it is to be prepared for a fire. Candidly, I was not ready.
I remember how unprepared we were for our first true wildfire event. I grew up in California, so fires we’re always on my mind, but I lived in Santa Rosa. This small city/town was more than safe against the onslaught of a fire, or so many of us thought. Sadly, we were mistaken.
What I remember most about October 8th of 2017, was the calm before the fire storm. It was unseasonably warm so my friends and I stayed out late, enjoying the warmth and remarking on how windy it had become. It was awe inspiring, but not terrifying (yet). Around 11pm we could smell a delicious BBQ firing up, but we couldn’t quite place where it was coming from but the wind kept bringing that tantalizing smell to us from the East. Considering the amount of amazing restaurants in Wine Country, this too seemed normal.
When we finally went to bed, it was around midnight. I was awoken by a call from a friend who lived nearby, their house was gone. A fire had blazed down the valley, it was still going. There was no stopping it. It sounded bad, but again, Santa Rosa seemed safe. The concrete and roads would surely act as a barrier for the Fire Department to hold the line at.
What none of us knew at the time was that the winds we had felt in our lazy Summer evening were the harbingers of devastation. A fire had sparked far up Tubbs Lane, and the very same winds had whipped it into a raging inferno. This fire moved so fast that it flashed cooked every living creature in its path.
Remember the BBQ smell earlier? Yup. So do I.
The fire department had to withdraw, they quite literally would be overwhelmed otherwise, and the frantic evacuation of the city began. Hours of traffic was between us and a safe place, as we left with only our necessities we could see other massive fires on the mountains and an eerie glow out towards the coast. It took 3 hours to travel what should have been 20 minutes worth of driving.
When all was said and done, Santa Rosa lost entire neighborhoods to this fire storm. Coffee Park in particular went from a charming residential area with a cute park, to a devastated warzone that is still recovering to this day. A total of 36,807 acre burned to the ground in a fire so outrageously hot that it quite literally cooked the ground so nothing could easily regrow in it’s wake. Thankfully at the time I didn’t have any pets, as we were not prepared for how fast the situation developed. Very few people were.
While there is always the possibility of not being truly prepared for situations such as these, as responsible pet owners, it's crucial to prepare for emergencies and ensure that when you need to evacuate, your pets are safe and able to evacuate with you as well . This article provides actionable advice for residential, ranch, farm, and city residents, in the hopes of helping you create a comprehensive pet safety plan to face fire incidents with confidence.
Creating a Pet-Friendly Emergency Plan
When the fire storms came for us, we only had time to grab our forms of identification and then run out the door. If we had taken the time to have a fire box prepped and ready to go we would have been far better prepared for the weeks that followed where we didn’t have access to our apartment.
When you’re creating your emergency plan, be sure to keep the following in mind:
- Include your pets in your overall emergency plan to ensure their safety.
- Assign specific responsibilities to family members, designating tasks related to pet evacuation and care.
- Prepare a well-stocked emergency kit for your pets, including food, water, medications, leashes, harnesses, carriers, and identification tags.
- Establish a safe meeting point outside your home where you and your pets can gather after evacuation.
Displaying Pet Alert Stickers
Do your best to make life easier for First Responders. They are here to help save as many lives as possible and the last thing they need is to run face first into a dog who bites strangers when nervous. Displaying pet alert stickers gives First Responders the chance to understand what situation they may be walking into, and most importantly, how many pets they may need to try and save.
Keep these tips in mind when displaying pet alert stickers:
- Place highly visible pet alert stickers or decals on windows and doors to alert firefighters or rescue teams about the presence of pets. Do not hide or obfuscate these stickers because they aren’t “pretty”!
- Regularly update the stickers with accurate information regarding the number and types of pets in your household.
- These stickers serve as vital indicators for responders, ensuring priority attention to pet rescue efforts.
Preventing Accidental or Additional Fire Starters
When an emergency happens try your best to stay calm for yourself and for your pets. Excess panic could lead to accidentally making the situation worse! Safeguard your home by exercising caution with open flames, such as candles, stovetops, and fireplaces. Never leave open flames unattended, and keep pets away from these areas as best as possible to minimize the risk of accidental fires or burns. Consider using flameless candles or pet-proof covers for open flames to reduce hazards. These flameless candles also double as a light source for power outages that so frequently occur with fires.
Securing Your Heat Sources
During colder months, pets may seek warmth near heaters, radiators, or fireplaces. If you have been uprooted from your home, you may need to bring additional heaters with you if you live in an area that gets heavy snowfall. Before you ask, yes, houses do burn down in Winter too.
If you have exposed heating sources that could spark a fire, install safety gates or barriers to prevent pets from getting too close. Supervise pets around heating devices to avoid burns or fires caused by accidental contact or knocking over items.
Effects of Wildfires on Pets
Wildfires pose additional challenges for pet safety due to their rapid spread and unpredictable nature. It’s tempting to only think about the flames in this regard, but wind conditions can swiftly bring in thick layers of smoke that make it difficult for us all to breath (including your pets). Always try to be prepared to respond to unexpected conditions, try to have alternative plans for such events.
Here are some tips that can help you stay prepared and can help you mitigate damage to your pets health during a fire:
- Stay informed about local wildfire risks and evacuation procedures. Often you can listen in on the “repeater” traffic from law agencies and First Responders. This can help you glean helpful information about how the fire is progressing and what areas are threatened. Do NOT try to go back into a fire zone without express permission from the Fire Department.
- In case of an approaching wildfire, keep your pets indoors as much as possible, preferably in a designated safe room with minimal windows and access to water and food.
- Be sure to have crates, horse trailers, evacuation supplies, and a few creature comforts (a blanket with your scent on it for example) for your pets, should time permit.
- Ranch, farm, and city residents should be prepared to evacuate with their pets and follow guidance from local authorities to ensure their safety.
Pet Safety for Different Residents
Not all of us live in cities, suburbs, or rural properties. The situation changes drastically depending on where you live, which means we would be remiss if we didn’t try to help with these concerns as well.
- Follow the general pet safety tips mentioned earlier to protect your pets during fires.
- Ensure your smoke alarms are properly installed, functioning, and tested regularly.
- Regularly check your fire extinguishers and keep them easily accessible.
- Plan for multiple evacuation routes, anticipate traffic. If you fear traffic will be a major issue, try to leave before evacuation is required.
- Warn your neighbors! Oftentimes emergency broadcast systems don’t work as intended and miss some residents. If the emergency is dire, bang on doors and start shouting “Fire! We need to leave! We’re being evacuated!” to get as much attention as possible to the situation.
Ranch and Farm Residents
- Prepare an evacuation plan for your pets and livestock, including horses, cattle, or poultry. You should anticipate that many of the first shelters you come across in a large evacuation are most likely going to be full. Be prepared for this!
- Have appropriate trailers, carriers, or transportation methods ready for moving animals to safe locations.
- Watch out for loose horses, cattle, or livestock. Oftentimes ranching families pass down the “leave the pastures open” ruleset. This means if a fire threatens your property fast, some ranchers will open their gates so their animals have a chance of escaping the inferno. This could mean cattle running down roads, horses bolting through fields, or in some cases there could be concerns about wild animals getting loose from nearby zoos and wildlife sanctuaries. (special shout out to this fine gent, who stubbornly held the line with garden hoses and saved his wildlife park)
- Maintain clear communication with local authorities, neighbors, or nearby farms to coordinate emergency response efforts.
Consider the specific challenges of urban areas, such as limited space and high-rise buildings.
Identify pet-friendly accommodations or shelters in case you need to evacuate with your pets.
Keep an updated list of pet-friendly hotels, boarding facilities, or friends/relatives willing to offer temporary shelter during emergencies.
A Note Concerning Elderly Pet Owners
As a society, we often forget to keep an eye on our elders. We all have a responsibility to take care of one another, which means if you have elderly neighbors then you should make sure to check in on them too.
- Do they have evacuation plans?
- Are they prepared for emergencies?
- Would they need help evacuating that you and others could provide?
- What kind of pets do they have to be concerned about?
Don’t forget that in times of emergency it is often teamwork and collaboration that make the difference between success and tragedy. Being a part of your local community is never a bad thing, and protecting your community can be as simple as speaking with your neighbors.
When it comes to emergencies you should strive to be a scout! Always be prepared! Consider adopting the following as well to ensure that if a disaster strikes, you’ll be as prepared as possible for not just yourself but also for your pets.
Prepare an Emergency Pet Care Kit
Yes you have an emergency kit for yourself and your family (You do, don’t you? Don’t make me come over there!), but do you have an emergency kit for your pets? Your pets will need food, water, medication (if they are on any), and a few creature comforts as well for mental health.
Your emergency pet care kit should include things like:
- Include essential items such as pet food, water, bowls, medications, a first aid kit, blankets, and comfort items (toys, blankets, a dog bed).
- Keep a copy of your pet's medical records, including vaccinations, in the kit. This information can be critical for vets to know in case of injury.
- Store the emergency pet care kit in a readily accessible location, ideally near an exit location so you can easily “grab and go”.
Plan for Evacuation
While it may seem daunting at first, you should always plan for evacuation and hope you never have to. There’s a lot to keep in mind for simply yourself, let alone your family, your pets, and your home.
Try to follow these helpful tips for both yourself and your pets:
- Identify multiple evacuation routes from your residence, considering potential road closures or blockages.
- Research pet-friendly evacuation shelters or hotels in your area and keep a list of their contact information.
- If evacuation is necessary, bring your pet's emergency kit, leash, collar with identification tags, and any necessary documentation.
Consider Microchipping and Identification
Microchipping is a technological wonder that reunites pets with their owners every day. If you don’t have it, consider adopting microchipping. At a bare minimum ensure your pet has a collar with the pet’s name, your name and address, and a contact number.
If you do microchip your pets in case of emergency, keep in mind:
- Ensure that their information is up to date in the microchip registry. This will help you reunite with your pets much faster should they run off!
- Have visible identification tags on your pets' collars with their names, your contact information, and an emergency contact number. Yes, this is STILL important to do!
- Always make sure your contact information and address is up-to-date! I cannot emphasize this enough.
Find Pet-Friendly Accommodations
Pet-friendly accommodations can be very hard to find on a normal day, let alone during an emergency. Thankfully in the case of the Tubbs Fire and surrounding fire storms, many hotels and campgrounds threw their policies out the window and allowed pets to stay with people who were fleeing the devastation. That being said, you cannot always rely on this to happen.
Try to keep these tips in mind when looking for pet-friendly accommodations during an emergency:
- Research and plan for pet-friendly accommodations in advance if you need to stay away from home during an evacuation. Anticipate that many of these places will have no vacancies due to the other evacuees just like you, you may need to drive several hours away to find a safe place.
- Keep a list of nearby friends, family, or boarding facilities that can temporarily house your pets if needed. Make sure this list has opportunities that expand beyond your county lines, the fires in Santa Rosa required many to evacuate beyond the county lines in many instances.
Research Calming Techniques for Stressed Pets
Most likely, you’ll be stressed as you prepare to evacuate (naturally). Your pets will be able to pick up on this, which will queue them into knowing something is wrong. This will raise their stress and anxiety as well. If you know your pet is prone to panicking or anxiety, consider the following advice:
- Loud noises and unfamiliar environments during fires or evacuations can cause stress and anxiety in pets.
- Utilize calming techniques such as creating a quiet space, using pheromone sprays, playing soothing music, calming treats, or providing familiar blankets or toys to help comfort your pets.
Consider Fire Safety Training for Pets
As strange as it may sound, you can in fact train your pets to be prepared for emergencies like fires and wildfires. Basic obedience training can be a life saver (sometimes literally), but good training in general can help ensure that your pet survives and is able to find you again after a catastrophic event.
Consider the following training for your pets:
- Consider training your pets to respond to basic fire safety commands, such as coming when called, staying close during evacuations, and remaining calm in emergency situations. Commands such as the classic “Come”, “Here”, and “Stay” can be critical at times!
- Regularly practice evacuation drills with your pets to familiarize them with the process and reduce panic during real emergencies. This will normalize the process for them somewhat so that they will know what to do when their beloved human suddenly starts throwing things in the car and acting really weird!
Explore Community Support and Resources
Always be aware of your community. While at times it may seem daunting, especially for the introverts among us, having a connection with your community can mean the difference between feast and famine. If you’re the giving type, try to find what communities you can lend a helping hand to. Often during emergencies such as wildfires you will find experts from many different pet fields coming to help and lend a hand, at no cost. You too, could be one of these fine heroes!
Keep the following in mind when it comes to fires and community support:
- Connect with local animal welfare organizations, veterinary clinics, or pet-friendly community groups to stay informed about resources, disaster response plans, or assistance available during fire emergencies.
- Join social media groups or email lists dedicated to pet safety and emergency preparedness to stay updated on relevant information.
- Find a community you can help support with your unique knowledge and talents, you never know who may need your expertise.
By incorporating these comprehensive pet safety measures into your fire and wildfire preparedness plan you can enhance the well-being of your beloved pets. Whether you reside in residential areas, ranches, farms, or cities, taking proactive steps and staying informed are crucial. Remember to regularly review and update your emergency plan to adapt to changing circumstances. Prioritizing the safety of your pets during fire incidents will ensure their well-being and give you peace of mind.
Always remember: Safety never takes a holiday.