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Pet disaster prep: Take these steps to keep your pets safe during a wildfire evacuation

Learn how to protect your pets if you live in an area prone to wildfires.

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A scared pet might run away during a natural disaster. Here are some tips to keep them safe -- or to find them more easily if they get lost. 

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Wildfires are raging in the Western United States amid record-breaking heat waves and drought. They've already scorched more than 2 million acres of land this year, damaging property and causing injuries and deaths. Because wildfires often start suddenly, it's important to have an evacuation plan in place that includes 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.

Fortunately, there are some steps you can take to be more prepared. We've already talked about how to get your house and yard ready for wildfire season, what to pack in a go bag in case you need to leave home fast, how to use emergency apps to stay in touch and get up-to-date information on natural disasters in your area -- and how to save digital copies of critical documents.

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. 

How to plan a wildfire evacuation with pets

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 2021 will be another record-breaking year for wildfire activity. Over 2.6 million acres have already burned, including the devastating Bootleg wildfire in Oregon, which has scorched 400,000 acres so far. 

The extended season and intensity of individual wildfires like Bootleg 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.

  • Know the alert procedure in your area

Familiarize yourself ahead of time with 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. 

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  • Pack a go bag for your pets (and 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:

  • Pet carrier(s), one for each pet
  • Enough food and water for two weeks
  • Spill/break-resistant food and water bowls
  • A pet first aid kit (you can buy one or make your own)
  • Medications with complete use instructions
  • Litter box and litter
  • Plastic bags for cleaning up waste
  • Paper towels/cloth towels
  • Cleaning supplies
  • Leashes/collars/harnesses/seat belts
  • Blankets
  • Toys and treats

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. 

You'll also want to prepare a go bag for yourself. Learn more here: Emergency go bag: What to pack if you need to leave home ASAP.

  • Know where to go and rehearse ahead of time

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. 

  • After 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.

  • Other 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:

Read more: Wildfire season: Here's everything you need to know 

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