By Laura Ireland
Director, Lincoln County Animal Shelter
Living on the Oregon Coast, we’re used to windy, stormy nights during the winter. The warm windstorm the night of September 9th felt entirely different, and a bit eerie.
At my home, the branches of the eucalyptus tree hitting the deck, the hydrangea flowers slamming the windows, and winds rattling outdoor furniture woke me up around 2 a.m. With little hope of going back to sleep, I gave in to scrolling through Facebook.
A post from a friend who lives in North County caught my attention: “We have evacuated and we are safe.” Clicking through the comments to find out more, I saw her report, “There is a major forest fire around my house in Otis. It’s bad.”
My thoughts immediately turned to Amy, an Animal Care Specialist at the Animal Shelter who lives in Otis. We started texting about the fires and her plans. She hadn’t received an alert, since she wasn’t in the immediate evacuation zone, but she began getting ready.
The Animal Shelter is a division of the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office, with Animal Services Deputies incorporated into the Patrol Division. Since we are tasked with disaster response for animals, I received the call with an update from our Administrative Lieutenant in command of Emergency Management just before 5 a.m. That news was enough to prompt Amy to evacuate with her four dogs and parents to the Red Cross shelter set up at Chinook Winds Casino in Lincoln City.
Knowing that people would be bringing pets with them to the emergency shelter, and that their policy was not to allow animals inside, we initiated our first response to get pet supplies to their people. We started gathering leashes, bowls, crates, collapsible litter pans, and food. With downed trees blocking nearly every access point, we were anxiously awaiting clearance, and we spoke with the Red Cross and Chinook Winds about bringing our emergency response trailer to help shelter pets and distribute supplies. Amy was on the scene and able to keep us up to date.
We received clearance to drive supplies up to Lincoln City the following morning. While we were en route, plans formed to open the County Commons (fairgrounds) to house large animals. With efforts led by three teenage girls, the local 4-H group partnered with county employees to construct dozens of corrals and pens to shelter horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, and other livestock or backyard animals in need. The evacuation zone was growing and calls for assistance were coming in quickly.
As I got closer to Chinook Winds, the skies grew more ominous and traffic slowed. Emergency vehicles passed us frequently on the 45-minute drive, and a wave of flashing lights started heading in the opposite direction. Police officers were urging everyone to turn around and began closing the highway. Clearly the fires were coming dangerously close.
A call from the Red Cross asked that we liaise at Taft High School on the south end of Lincoln City. When we arrived, the Emergency Manager for the school district confirmed that the shelter was moving to Oregon Coast Community College in Newport. We arrived shortly after, and animal supplies were unloaded and ready for evacuees and their pets. With a lull before they arrived, I brought intake and animal tracking forms to the large animal shelter at the County Commons. With the news that there were dozens of horses being re-evacuated from the BiMart parking lot, we made plans for ID paint and tags in order for us to closely track animals and their transporters and owners.
Meanwhile, back at the Animal Shelter, our first fire victim arrived–an itty bitty kitty we named Smudge. In the midst of the evacuations, a Sergeant with the Sheriff’s Office had seen her in the middle of the road. He was able to scoop her up and bring her to the Otis Fire Hall, which ended up being a drop-off site for first responders to bring found animals and connect with Animal Services Deputies. She needed to have her eye removed, but she recovered well and is now in a safe, loving home with the vet tech who cared for her.
At the end of the day, we were asked to help transport the animal supplies and people with pets to another location as the emergency shelter was being moved, again, to the Newport Recreation Center. Animal Services Deputy Bailey and I were met by many people grateful for leashes, crates, and food. Nearly everyone on foot escaped with only the clothes they were wearing and the pets they could carry or tie to them. One gentleman in his robe and slippers was sitting on a bench with a cat carrier in his lap. He described his narrow escape from his home and was distraught that he was able to save only one of his five cats before the flames forced him to leave. While he was thankful that he had been able to save Myster, he was too overwhelmed to feel that he could continue to care for him. We accept animals with compassion every day from people who need to make this heart-wrenching decision, and this situation was no different. I was able to assure him Myster would receive loving care on his way to a new home.
Another gentleman asked if we had a larger crate since the one he had was broken. He had walked away from his home with two chickens, a parakeet, and two dogs. While we did have a larger crate, I offered emergency boarding for his animals for a few days—that is quite the crew to try to move from shelter to shelter and into a hotel. We were able to care for his pets for a week until he was more settled and able to pick them up. We helped a number of other people transport their pets to the Recreation Center, and several families chose to help with boarding for a few days. Animal Care Specialists got everyone settled into the Animal Shelter, but they were also busy preparing to transport animals to the Oregon Humane Society, who had opened their doors to us in order to make space available here. Throughout the past two months, OHS, Cat Adoption Team, Heartland Humane Society, and Greenhill Humane Society have been amazing transfer partners helping make sure we are able to accommodate as many animals as possible. We have received news that they have all been adopted, including Myster.
The following day, we were able to meet with all of the families with pets at the Rec Center and make sure everyone had enough food and supplies. Thankfully, the Rec Center allowed people to bring their pets into one of the gyms. The Red Cross required that all pets have a secure crate or kennel and we were happy to supply them so families could stay together. All of the cats who were in travel carriers were grateful for large wire crates that could hold their litter box, food, and comfy blankets, and everyone was able to relax and take care of other tasks knowing their dogs were safe and secure.
Meanwhile, efforts to evacuate and care for animals continued up in Otis. Officers, firefighters, and linemen helped any animals they came across. LCSO Deputy Siscilee Gouge led the initial efforts to help care for animals in the evacuation zone, bringing injured animals to nearby veterinary offices, setting up food stations for outdoor cats, and caring for livestock.
The three Animal Services Deputies were assigned 12-hour shifts, with all of them working in the evacuation zone. The Animal Shelter staff quickly changed our online lost/found report to include space for people to report pets who were left behind. Additionally, all animal-related calls into the dispatch center were directed to the Animal Shelter so that we could help free deputies to quickly respond to other calls. Once the danger of the fires had passed, ASDs were able to care for animals in place. Collectively, we realized it would be better for the animals, and more sustainable given our small staff, especially in the time of COVID, to care for them in their own homes. Over the course of ten days, Animal Services Deputies cared for hundreds of animals including goats, horses, chickens, alpacas, rabbits, parrots, peacocks, turtles, cats, reptiles, and fish. They spoke with worried owners, and they left signs and cards so they would know their animals were being cared for.
Animal Services coordinated with firefighters who filled livestock troughs, created feeding stations, worked with homeowners to gain access to pets left indoors, and helped reunite dozens of families with their animals. As restrictions lifted and entry was deemed safe, ASDs escorted people into the evacuation zone so they could get their pets.
At the Animal Shelter, we brought in dozens of animals who were injured or in areas where they were in danger. We were ecstatic when pets were found to be microchipped, or their owners recognized their photos and they were reunited. Many cats lived at the local veterinary clinics while they spent weeks recovering from severe burns. Many community members donated to the veterinary clinics and to the Animal Shelter’s Medical Fund for their care. The Salty Dog Hound Lounge immediately opened their doors to be a donation/distribution center, to provide emergency boarding, and to be a transport station so ASDs could stay in the Otis area as much as possible. All the animals who were boarded have been reunited with their families, including two who were able to go home after their fence was rebuilt by Fences for Fido.
As land is being cleared and recovery continues, efforts to care for, reunite, relocate, and spay/neuter cats left behind in the Echo Mountain Complex fire zone also continue. While we mourn the few animals we couldn’t save, our efforts to help people plan for their pets in disasters remain steadfast, our training continues, and our supply caches were restocked and continue to grow. Having Animal Services and Emergency Management embedded in the Sheriff’s Office allowed us to form relationships, train and plan together, and work as a unit, helping save people and the animals they love.