This is Kelly Stottlemeyer, a Paramedic-firefighter with Salisbury MD, Fire Department. First Responding runs in the family!
Wildfires and Pets
This article is about a crucial topic: Keeping your animals safe in this extraordinary wildfire season.
I’m writing this on a beautiful and cool morning, and at the same time we are in extreme drought conditions. To the north of Santa Fe, the drought conditions are called “exceptional” which is high as the scale goes.
If that isn’t enough, Santa Fe County has some of the most dangerous Wildfire-Urban Interface (Fire department-speak for homes in wilderness areas) in the country. The combination of terrain, fuel loads — types of burnable vegetation, mostly grass, piñón and juniper— weather conditions, and hundreds of homes in vulnerable areas are a volatile combination.
The other problem is that as Santa Feans, we have watched from a distance as big fires burned in the Jemez and north in the Santa Fe National Forest. We have not had the experience (like Los Alamos, or Colorado Springs, or California) of a big fire at our doorstep or actually burning into residential areas.
But it could be our turn next.
If this makes you a little nervous, welcome to the world of Santa Fe firefighters, who wake up every morning, check the weather, the sky and hope that today won’t be the day we get the “big one” that burns thousands of acres.
In one of my other vocations, (I live in Santa Fe, so, like most everyone else, I juggle at least four vocations) I am a volunteer firefighter with Hondo Volunteer Fire Department. Hondo sits southeast of town. One of our duties is inspecting homes to help homeowners figure out the best strategies for reducing the chances of a wildfire burning down their house. But one of the often-asked questions is what to do with our pets?
Here are my top tips:
1. Have a plan. It is important to not wait until there is a fire. A plan should include where you will take your animals. Dogs and cats can go to friends out of the fire zone, or to “doggie day-care.” A note: make sure that your dogs and cats are comfortable getting into a car so that you can do it quickly. If you have other pets, lizards, birds or snakes, (no comment) make sure you also have a plan for them.
Think about it this way: Imagine that your house might burn down or that you might not get back to your residence for up to 3-4 days. How would that influence your planning?
2. Be prepared to leave early. We don’t know how big or bad a fire could get or how fast it could spread. If you see or smell smoke or see fire, or a column of smoke wider than a mile in the distance, don’t wait for officials to tell you to leave. Leave early. Have at least two evacuation routes. Have a charged cell phone. It’s a good idea if you live in a vulnerable area to keep your car or truck full of fuel.
3. Next, coordinate with your neighbors. If you work and there is a fire that starts during the day, you might not be able to get back to your home to get your pets, either because of the fire or because the fire department is blocking access. (Now is the time to get to know your neighbors and have a community plan to take care of your animals!)
4. NEVER tie your pets up! NEVER let them run free thinking they will figure out what to do. In a big fire they will be just as terrified and confused as you are.
5. Especially if you live in a vulnerable area, consider having an emergency preparedness kit for your pet, including supplies (and water) for up to two weeks, collars and tags with proof of vaccinations.
A note about smoke. Often, we don’t get a fire, but we get the smoke from distance fires. Remember, pets are affected by smoke the same way humans are. If your pets are young and healthy, they can tolerate smoke for a few hours. But if they are older or sick, smoke can exacerbate illnesses. Just like humans, consider keeping your pets indoors with windows shut if it’s smoky outside.
Finally, worrying about stuff like this is built into the DNA of firefighters. And we want nothing more than to be wrong about the big one being out there. But most importantly we want you and your pets to be safe!
This is the next in the series, “Firefighters: Who we are!” This is Steven Greene. Steven is a retired now, but he is still actively supporting the service with his podcast, “Five-Alarm Task Force!” Google it and check it out.
This is an article I wrote on resilience and PTSD for the National Volunteer Fire Council. PTSD is a serious issue for First Responders, but there are things we can do to help!
“Hondo, illegal burn. 99 Old Las Vegas Highway. Timeout, 1620.”
Typically, this is a call that gets maybe one or two firefighters and a brush truck rolling to the scene. Typically, we find a campfire, someone burning slash or our always favorite, a sweat lodge.
But yesterday was not typical. We responded with two brush trucks, an engine, a tender (a truck that carries water) and a med unit. All told, twelve firefighters showed up.
It was a good thing. We are in the middle of another historic drought, and yesterday the winds were thirty miles an hour, gusting to sixty.
It was a good thing we came with numbers.
(a comic relief digression: at the beginning of the rutted driveway there was a “No Trespassing” sign with a note: “Resident is Armed!” Another quarter of a mile up there was another sign: “You are now in range of my rifle.” I figured he wouldn’t shoot at us, the fire department coming to rescue his butt, but stranger things have happened.)
A careless dumping of hot ashes from the resident’s fireplace had caused a small brush fire, and the wind quickly spread the fire to the garage. When we arrived, flames were climbing the wall and had already breeched the roof.
We were, as I fervently believe, the luckiest fire department in the west. We got water on the garage fire and knocked it down and extinguished the fire burning in the grass and weeds.
Lucky. Another ten minutes and the garage would have been fully involved with fire, and the wind would have spread burning embers hundreds of yards upwind. We would’ve been faced with a monstrous wildland fire. Ten homes upwind and uphill in heavily forested piñón and juniper terrain would’ve probably been lost. A fire pushing uphill and up arroyos by sixty mile-an-hour winds is just something we can’t handle.
When we finished, fires out and we had packed up, there was a palpable sense of relief that this hadn’t turned into the “big one.” We had dodged the dragon-fire one more time.
But it’s only April, and the rains aren’t due until July.
So we’re on edge. This morning, for example, we had a car rollover in a little village in the mountains called Canadá De Los Alamos. There were no injuries. (actually, there was no patient, just a scattering of liquor bottles — the little ones— and a destroyed and cold car. Typical New Mexico)
But driving out of the quaint village I thought, what if there was a wildfire here? There is only one way in and one way out. A big fire would consume the entire village in a day, just like the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos in 2000. People might not get out.
Driving down, all I saw were homes in the dry and tinder-like forest. Hundreds of homes. And I thought about the innocent act of dumping hot ashes in the trash. That act — that fast — and the hundreds of homes could be destroyed, and lives put at risk.
I asked myself, how long will our luck hold?
So this is the time of year where we dream about fire. We watch the weather. We scan the horizon for smoke. We are a fire department on edge.
(Photo credit Steve at Gigapic)