Re­searcher says evac­u­a­tion plans need to ac­count for pets

First 72 hours of Fort McMur­ray wild­fire de­scribed as ‘com­mu­ni­ca­tions gong show’

Calgary Herald - - CITY + REGION - LAU­REN KRUGEL

A Cal­gary re­searcher says the Fort McMur­ray wild­fire in 2016 showed how pets are often over­looked in dis­as­ter plan­ning.

Kim Wil­liams, with Mount Royal Univer­sity ’s Cen­tre for Com­mu­nity Dis­as­ter Re­search, in­ter­viewed 32 evac­uees, first re­spon­ders, vet­eri­nar­i­ans, vol­un­teers, politi­cians, pol­icy-mak­ers and an­i­mal wel­fare work­ers in­volved in Canada’s costli­est nat­u­ral dis­as­ter.

In a pa­per re­leased Tues­day, she said a com­mon theme emerged.

“Al­though the risk of wild­fire is high in and around Fort McMur­ray, nei­ther the prov­ince nor the (Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity of Wood Buf­falo) had a plan for how to man­age com­pan­ion an­i­mals dur­ing a dis­as­ter,” said Wil­liams, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of women’s and gen­der stud­ies.

Some 88,000 peo­ple were forced from their homes as the fire — so fierce and un­pre­dictable it was nick­named “the Beast” — spread into the north­east­ern Al­berta city. Al­most 2,600 dwellings were de­stroyed.

3.Of the es­ti­mated 40,000 pets there at the time, be­tween 1,200 and 1,500 had to be left be­hind when the city was evac­u­ated May

Ini­tially, first re­spon­ders went from home to home pro­vid­ing food and wa­ter to an­i­mals, but the evac­u­a­tion lasted longer than ex­pected. A res­cue oper­a­tion be­gan for the crit­ters four days after their hu­mans left, and the first truck­load ar­rived in Ed­mon­ton early on May 8.

Wil­liams called the first 72 hours of the evac­u­a­tion a “com­mu­ni­ca­tions gong show” as peo­ple strug­gled to find out if their an­i­mals were OK and how they could be re­united.

It’s not clear how many pets died. Wil­liams rec­om­mends an an­i­mal wel­fare ex­pert be in­cluded in emer­gency oper­a­tions cen­tres dur­ing dis­as­ters so those con­cerns aren’t over­looked.

The pa­per high­lights chal­lenges in ob­tain­ing and trans­port­ing nec­es­sary pet-care sup­plies dur­ing the Fort McMur­ray evac­u­a­tion. Wil­liams rec­om­mends ship­ping con­tain­ers be set up filled with non-per­ish­able sup­plies at var­i­ous spots in the prov­ince so they could be eas­ily moved where needed.

There were also is­sues with vet­eri­nar­i­ans be­ing un­able to get ac­cess to an­i­mals’ health records. Wil­liams said she would like to see those records kept in an elec­tronic data­base.

The re­search found an­i­mal care­givers in Fort McMur­ray were taken aback by how many ex­otic an­i­mals there were. Staff were not pre­pared for all the lizards, birds and snakes, Wil­liams said.

“There’s a prob­lem with an­i­mal li­cens­ing,” she said.

Wil­liams said fail­ing to make an­i­mal care a big­ger part of emer­gency plan­ning ul­ti­mately puts hu­man lives at risk.

“Pets are an in­te­gral part of peo­ple’s fam­i­lies, and hu­mans will de­lay or refuse evac­u­a­tion if they can­not evac­u­ate with their pets or, at the very least, be as­sured that first re­spon­ders and emer­gency man­age­ment per­son­nel have a well-or­ga­nized plan for man­ag­ing those pets that must be left be­hind,” she wrote.

“Spon­ta­neous vol­un­teers will sneak into dis­as­ter ar­eas to res­cue forcibly aban­doned pets for the same rea­sons.”

JONATHAN HAY­WARD/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

A Mount Royal Univer­sity re­searcher says the prov­ince needs a bet­ter way to han­dle pets dur­ing dis­as­ters.

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