Summit County officials have urged residents to find ways to protect themselves and their homes in the event of a wildfire. But what hasn’t been discussed is how to protect pets.
“When people can’t get to their pet it creates a big problem,” Lesley Hall said. “People are willing to risk their lives for their pets.”
Hall, director of Summit County Animal Control and Shelter, urges the public to make a plan for evacuating and taking care of pets in the event of a wildfire evacuation.
Hall has worked at the shelter for almost 25 years. During that time, emergency preparedness has developed into a “pet” project.
“We are going to be called upon to help, and I’m not one who likes to be unprepared,” she said. “We have a very small staff. Obviously, we can’t go rescue all the horses in the county and all the small animals in the county, so we need individuals to have their own plan.”
She encourages residents to get crates for their pets so they can easily be transported. They should also create a “go box” for their animals that includes such items as food, leashes, collars, crates, medications and veterinary records.
“Have that ready to go along with your own things,” she said.
Local shelter staff also urge residents to make plans with their neighbors and friends so someone can get into a home to retrieve animals in the event an owner is away when an evacuation occurs.
“In the event the individual’s plan falls through, then we ask them to call the animal evacuation hotline and put in a rescue request,” Hall said. “Our staff and volunteers will try to go and get those animals out.”
The animal rescue request form includes information about how shelter volunteers can gain access to a house. If requested, they will break a window, but for legal reasons they can’t enter any house without permission, Hall said.
The shelter director developed the Summit County Animal Response Team, or SCART, to help recover pets in the event of a wildfire. About 50 Summit residents have volunteered to be part of the effort.
The volunteers are integral to the evacuation effort, she said. “We just do not have the resources to do it on our own.”
Suzie Lazo is helping to head up the evacuation plan for horses and other large animals in Summit County. Lazo is a horse owner herself and has volunteered for the fire department for almost 15 years. She said being part of the evacuation effort is a perfect fit.
“When Lesley starting talking about these things, I thought it was fascinating,” Lazo said. “I told her, ‘I am onboard with this and will do whatever I can.’”
Lazo has researched the number and location of horses in Summit County and created a database. She’s put together evacuation bins for horses at the Breckenridge equestrian center, and spread the word about evacuation procedures to fellow horse owners.
“What really fascinated me was when I started talking to people was the amount of animals in the county,” she said. “We have over 160 large animals between Farmer’s Korner and Hoosier Pass.”
The large-animal group is one of five teams coordinated through the Summit County Animal Response Team. The others include a small-animal evacuation team, a livestock team, a co-sheltering team and a receptionist team.
The co-shelter team is responsible for setting up an animal shelter that would be adjacent to the Red Cross shelter. If the shelter is set up at the middle school, for example, the co-shelter would be set up at the school’s bus barn, Hall said.
“It would be staffed by volunteers, and we hope that the owners would come and participate in caring for their animal,” she said. “For people who evacuate with their pets, but have nowhere to take them, we will encourage them to bring their pets here to the shelter.”
Although the logistics behind the Summit County Animal Response Team have taken a lot of coordination and effort, local pet owners said it’s definitely an effort worth making.
“Pets are our family. They are so important to people,” Hall said.
Volunteer Lazo echoed her sentiments. “Horse owners are a different breed of people. They will save their horse before they save their house,” she said. “That’s just how horse owners are.”