Wildfire season is here in the United States and the rest of North America. Since Jan. 1, 18,403 wildfires have burned 518,698 acres across the US and wildfires are currently raging in the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Nova Scotia, exposing millions of Americans in the east to unhealthy air quality conditions. Wildfires scorch millions of acres of land per year, damaging property and causing injuries and deaths. Because wildfires often start suddenly, it's important to have an evacuation plan in place. And that plan should include your pets.
"A lot of times wildfires come so quickly, people don't have their stuff ready to go," explains Lynnette Round, information officer with Cal Fire.
All of these tips could come in handy to help prepare your family and your home for the unexpected. But what special precautions should you take for your pets? I got advice from Cal Fire, FEMA and the American Red Cross on ways to keep your cats, dogs and other pets safe in the event of a wildfire evacuation.
Wildfire season typically lasts from May to October, but more recently that timeframe has expanded. Wildfires burned 735,125 acres in December 2020, breaking records in the US. Predictions say 2023 will be another record-breaking year for wildfire activity.
The extended season and intensity of individual wildfires like in Canada make it even more important to have a plan in place before a potential evacuation, including making a plan for your pets.
"Sometimes [people] don't have a lot of time, and it's just enough time to get out. So if they're prepared ahead of time, they won't have to have that anxiety and they can just grab [their pets] and go," adds Round.
Note: While this article has specific information related to wildfires, the advice is broadly applicable to emergency prep for any natural disaster. It is specific to smaller animals and pets, though. If you have questions about how to manage livestock, horses or other large animals in an emergency, Cal Fire has a helpful guide.
Familiarize yourself with the alert procedure in your area
Be aware of the types of natural disasters in your area, says Marilyn Jiménez Dávila, a spokesperson for the American Red Cross. How do local officials notify residents and visitors about wildfires? Do they sound sirens? Do they issue emergency alerts on TV and radio? Before anything else, make sure you know what types of alerts exist where you live and how they're issued. This way, you'll hear about evacuation orders as quickly as possible.
Put together a go bag for your pets (and for yourself)
Cal Fire goes into detail about how to prepare pets before an evacuation and how to keep them safe during one. It includes pet-specific go bag items you should have ready at all times:
Keep what you can in a bag and store the rest (litter boxes, pet carriers, etc.) within close reach so you can quickly grab everything you need as you're heading out the door.
Keep digital copies of your pets' current medical records and other important documentation. You should also store this information in hard copies in a waterproof bag, including adoption papers, vaccination documents, details about their food and eating schedules, medical/behavior issues and your vet's contact info, a FEMA spokesperson suggests over email.
"Include a picture of you and your pet together. If you become separated from your pet during an emergency, a picture of you and your pet together will help you document ownership and allow others to assist you in identifying your pet," the FEMA spokesperson says.
Make sure your pets are microchipped and that the microchips are activated. Ensure they're wearing their most recent IDs on easy-to-read collar tags, including your contact information (and, ideally, at least one other person's contact info), rabies tags and registration IDs.
FEMA provides detailed information on planning an evacuation, including how to evacuate with smaller animals. Start by identifying multiple potential evacuation routes and locations, including staying with friends or family or at a shelter or hotel. The Red Cross allows service animals, but most of its shelters don't allow pets.
"We do work with partners to make sure that our small animals do have a safe place to go," Jiménez Dávila, the Red Cross spokesperson explains. That means you can show up at a Red Cross shelter with your pets and the team there will help find a safe place for them to stay during the evacuation. The American Red Cross Emergency: Alerts app has a map section that provides information on shelters locations.
Jiménez Dávila also suggests keeping your car (if you have one) full of gas and facing the road in the direction of your planned evacuation route. "Having a plan is great, but what's going to really help you is, if you practice what you should do. Practice your evacuation route," she explains. Include the whole family in your practice evacuations, even pets, to get used to using pet carriers, carrying go bags and testing your planned evacuation routes.
If you don't have a car, talk to neighbors, friends and family about your options -- and find out what public transportation or other services might be available to help you.
Once you return home
After local authorities decide it's safe for you to return home, you should still be cautious, Jiménez Dávila says. "Afterwards just like you would be careful wearing gloves and sturdy shoes when you're returning home, your pets are going to need some extra care as well."
Hotspots or other hazards caused by the wildfire might still be a concern. Your pets are going to be nervous, so make sure you watch them closely and don't let them wander.
Three more important things to keep in mind
If you aren't home when a wildfire starts or spreads to your area, have a plan in place for a neighbor, friend or relative to look in on your pets to make sure they're OK -- or to evacuate with them if necessary.
If you have to evacuate without your pets, put them inside your home in a windowless room with good ventilation, Cal Fire says. Consider putting them in a bathroom, utility room or garage (depending on the weather) and don't tie them up.
Set out dry food and water in containers that won't break or spill, and let a faucet slowly drip water into a bigger container or bathtub to allow for a longer-term supply of water.
For more information, check out the following resources for protecting your pets in areas prone to wildfires: