Pets and wildlife among the casualties of wildfires

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

Smokey Bear saved us the details of what happens to animals in wildfires.

But now we know, from the massive fires burning in Idaho, Alaska, Oregon, Montana, Washington and California. This fire season is one of the worst on record, with more than 11,600 square miles scorched — the most acreage in a decade.

The fires have taken a toll — human lives lost, property destroyed, people displaced and animals killed, abandoned or missing.

In Idaho, fires have displaced companion animals and livestock and charred habitat for wildlife — elk, moose, deer and many others. In the southwestern part of that state, fire destroyed populations of greater sage-grouse and burned to death at least 27 wild mustangs.

In Washington state, in the area of Tonasket, an estimated 14,000 farm animals — cows, horses and pigs — have faced fire threats. A single family lost a herd of two dozen cattle.

In late August, The Humane Society of the United States donated $5,000 to Washington state’s Wenatchee Valley Humane Society to shelter displaced animals. Another $5,000 from the Humane Society went to the Oregon Hay Bank in Grant County, Oregon, where distressed horse owners face a shortage of hay for their animals because of the fires.

In Montana, national animal rescue teams are working with local shelters to find abandoned or lost dogs, cats and rabbits, provide shelter and reunite animals with their owners.

In California, fire destroyed one wildlife sanctuary that housed birds of prey, large cats, mule deer and a black bear.

As the fires raged in the western United States, the 10-year anniversary of a disaster in the South arrived. Hurricane Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005. The damage was estimated at $108 billion. Nearly 2,000 people died. Many others have yet to return home. And hundreds of thousands of dogs, cats and animals were displaced or killed.

Katrina changed how emergency responders and animal welfare groups handle rescues and also how pet owners, vets and emergency teams prepare for a disaster.

When Katrina hit, many people who needed rescue refused to go without their pets, but first-responders refused or were not equipped to take animals. Meanwhile, at many shelters, people with pets were turned away.

Now, under the PETS Act enacted after Katrina, every Federal Emergency Management disaster plan must address the evacuation, rescue and sheltering of animals.

“So very many animals lost their lives in the flooding,” said animal welfare advocate Kristiana Paul of Tampa, Florida. Paul rescued three labs from New Orleans after the storm. “And some people lost their lives because they had nowhere to go with their pet. We still will lose animals in disasters, but the crisis of Katrina shouldn’t ever happen again.”

Out West, animal welfare advocates say the reform that followed Katrina saved innumerable lives. “It was after Katrina that people really thought about micro-chipping their pets and made plans for where they could shelter with their animals,” said animal welfare advocate Mike Beatie of Portland, Oregon. Beatie has been assisting with rescue and foster efforts in the state. “Things would be much worse here if we hadn’t dealt with what happened in Katrina.”