On Monday night, I attended a heated City Council meeting to weigh in on a discriminatory and problematic ordinance being proposed for inclusion on the 2016 ballot, but first, the City Council went over general business. Their discussions included a proposal for direct mutual aid to Middleton and other Lake Country communities ravaged by the Valley Fire, currently at 67,000 acres with 15 percent containment. Even from here, we can see ash and smell smoke, a bitter reminder of the awful scope of some of the worst wildfires in California's history.
The proposal that we do our part to help victims of California's devastating fires has been echoed across the state, with communities, organizations, and individuals stepping up to provide support in any way possible. Communities all over California are sending funds, driving to evacuation centers with supplies, volunteering, offering in-kind firefighting aid, and more.
23,000 people have been displaced from their homes, and so have their animals, which is why animal rescue groups up and down the state have swung into action to provide aid to furry evacuees — an often neglected group when it comes to emergency assistance. I spoke with Alissa McNair, the Vice-President of Wine Country Animal Lovers, about the work the all-volunteer organization has been doing on the Calistoga Fairgrounds ever since the site opened to evacuees on Saturday.
As soon as WCAL heard the fairgrounds had been designated as an evacuation site, they knew that hundreds of animals would probably be arriving with their people, and they launched into action. They headed to the fairgrounds to connect with the Red Cross — and ended up beating them there, with Red Cross personnel pulling up just minutes after they arrived. Representatives told them that an animal coordinator couldn't get on site until the next day, so WCAL took the lead, staying until 3AM to provide support to a flood of incoming evacuees and their animal friends, including dogs, cats, llamas, rabbits, chickens, horses, and chinchillas.
With evacuees scrambling to get out, many animals were moved without needed medications, food, and supplies, so the group took to its animal pantry and reached out to partner organizations for mutual aid. Within hours, WCAL was flooded with so many donations that the group had to beg people to stop sending food, toys, and other supplies, requesting that supporters consider donating funds instead.
Even news crews are joining in with the effort.
Together with partner organizations, WCAL began checking in with families as they arrived on site. Many came with their animals, and Alissa estimates that some 300 animals are currently on site, with more offsite in foster homes thanks to the Sonoma County Humane Society. The group is working with the Jameson Animal Rescue Ranch and Petaluma Avenue Services (PAS), among other partners, to provide support to animals and their families — some of whom are sleeping outdoors because pets are not allowed inside the evacuation facility.
When people need to get indoors to check in, charge phones, and perform other tasks, WCAL is providing a babysitting service. PAS, she explains, has been particularly helpful, thanks to their "Cuddle Shuttle," a mobile unit with room for up to 21 animals as well as a small workroom. The shuttle provides temporary respite for overheated and stressed animals.
Meanwhile, veterinarians have been showing up on the fairgrounds to provide medical attention — Alissa says she's seen few fire-related injuries, but animals have a variety of needs including management for chronic conditions and injuries incurred during transport as well as stress due to the unfamiliar and crowded environment of the fairgrounds. To the north, people like Dr. Jeff Smith, a practitioner in Middleton, are working desperately to provide care to animals left behind in the fires.
His clinic survived, and his kennels are currently full of animals with medical needs, while he makes the rounds in the community to locate animals, pick them up if they need attention, and provide food and supplies to those who can shelter in place. WCAL sent up additional kennels to expand his clinic's capacity. Middleton was nearly completely destroyed in the blaze, with evacuees fleeing in thick smoke while embers jumped in the firestorm and trees exploded from the heat.
Smith is working with information from animal owners who had to leave their pets behind — WCAL is collecting requests for welfare checks along with explicit permission to enter temporarily abandoned properties "so he's not flying blind," Alissa explains. (You can email firstname.lastname@example.org if you're missing a pet.) Dr. John Madigan from UC Davis is also on the scene, providing aid to horses — who can become critically threatened if they go without water for more than 24 hours.
By Tuesday, the group was focusing on organizing a currently chaotic lost and found system at the fairgrounds so it can work on reuniting animals with their owners. Several Facebook groups including Valley Fire — Lake County Lost or Found Pets, Valley Fire Support, and Valley Fire Pet Find, are also coordinating animal lost and found efforts.
"People are losing everything," Alissa said, "but our community is making us proud."
When the group posted a request for drivers and trucks to get animals out of Lake County's animal shelter before they were euthanized to create room for incoming animals, she expected a handful of responses — and got nearly 45. After sending up three trucks, they found that animal rescues had already arrived to save all of the cats and many of the dogs, with WCAS taking the rest of the dogs to safety.
"It's sad, but quite heartwarming," she adds, with the sound of sirens in the background.
The group has been provided with so much help in Calistoga, Alissa says, that while volunteers are always welcome, she encourages people to contact other evacuation centers that may not be as well supported. If you're interested in providing financial or in-kind aid to victims — human and animal alike — of the Valley Fire, here's a list with detailed information on how to help. Love Lake County is also providing a network for connecting volunteers and donors with those in need. If you've safely evacuated or want to check on friends and family members, use Safe & Well to get in touch.
Images courtesy Wine Country Animal Lovers.