The Fort McMurray wildfire, which sparked a mandatory evacuation order, forced countless residents to leave behind their pets in the burning city Tuesday afternoon.
“They are like family,” said Laura Gislason of her 16-year-old dog Gabi and her five-year-old cat Pastel.
The 25-year-old was running errands downtown when people started closing their stores and fleeing the city. She and her boyfriend Kyle Benio, 28, tried to drive home to get their things, but the main road was already blocked off.
They had no choice but to leave with “nothing but the clothes on [their] backs.”
“I feel incredibly guilty and upset about having to leave my pets behind.”
“My cat is very important to me, and our dog is our little old lady… I’m very worried about [them].”
Close to 50 animals have been taken into a reception centre, according to an Alberta official who advised residents on Wednesday to call 780-788-4000 if they are worried about pets left in homes.
The mayor of the Wood Buffalo regional municipality tweeted that pet owners who had to leave pets behind should call the Fort McMurray SPCA (780-743-8997).
Gislason, like many, has tried that number as well as other rescue numbers — with no luck.
She’s also posted a plea on Fort McMurray Fire Emergency Animal Assistance. It’s one of several Facebook pages trying to reunite people with their pets.
‘Everyone has been so amazing’
Countless people have offered to help fire evacuees in whatever way they can, including Melissa Foley. She’s the founder of Farm Animal Rescue & Rehoming Movement (FARRM).
“Everyone’s been calling all night seeing if we can go in and get their animals out of their houses,” Foley said.
A lot of those calls apparently came from people who were out of town when the evacuation happened. Some “left their animals in someone’s care and those people just took off and left the animals.” Others were forced to leave their animals behind amid the abrupt evacuation.
“We’ve had post after post about people’s horses who are stranded on their property… 17 pigs [are] looking for somewhere to go.”
And of course there are plenty of abandoned cats and dogs.
Even though Foley’s animal rescue is based in Wetaskiwin, about five hours south of the fire, she’s doing what she can to help. That includes giving animals that have made it out of Fort McMurray a place to stay.
“We have trucks and trailers ready as well as our hands and hearts to help with fleeing animals,” she wrote on Facebook.
On her page and several others, dozens of strangers — some from as far as Ontario — have made offers to open their homes to animals and displaced residents.
“It has been completely overwhelming,” Foley said. “It is exactly how you would want to see people respond in a situation like this.”
“Everyone has been so amazing.”
Putting lives at risk for pets
“I know someone who just rode his bike in and got his two dogs out of [a] house in [the] Timberlea area,” Cat Villeneuve wrote on Facebook.
“There are lots of dogs running all over the streets, he tried to get them to follow him, but they are too scared.”
Global News spoke to a couple residents who have been reunited with their pets (though they violated the mandatory evacuation order to reach them).
One woman, who made it to Lac La Biche yesterday, told us her fiance stayed in town at a friend’s house last night while she fled the city from her office.
“I can’t explain why he stayed there,” she said.
“The thought didn’t even cross my mind… It made sense to go the other direction.”
She explained she would’ve essentially been driving into the fire had she tried to go get her cats.
Her fiance was able to pick up the couple’s pets Wednesday morning.
He told her Fort McMurray was a “ghost town” and that he was trying to get out.
Another man told Global News he’d lied his way through a check stop to get his dog.
Residents who have a pet missing in Fort McMurray were advised by the Regional Municipality for Wood Buffalo to call 780-762-3636.
“Staff will log your information and send assistance if possible,” said a tweet from the account.