Animal lovers

Saving pets from disasters

Animals’ friend Paradise resident Sandy Doolittle is ready and able to help animals caught in a natural disaster.

Animals’ friend Paradise resident Sandy Doolittle is ready and able to help animals caught in a natural disaster.

Photo By Brittni Zacher

In the summer of 2001, the most devastating fire in Butte County to date swept through a foothills area above Oroville. Flames burned more than 8,000 acres, destroying 47 homes and charring the little community of Yankee Hill. Many evacuating families were forced to leave their pets behind. Some went willingly, others didn’t.

One woman died in her home because she wouldn’t abandon her animals.

Animal lover Sandy Doolittle was saddened to learn of the woman’s death. Now she wants to make sure others don’t have to face such a situation.

During evacuation many families simply don’t have the space or the time to take their pets. Still others want to stay home with their animals, endangering themselves and making things harder for emergency personnel.

That’s when the North Valley Animal Disaster Group steps in, said Doolittle, who now serves as the group’s public information officer.

The nonprofit helps evacuate and shelter animals. A core of about 80 to 90 volunteers and others who work on and off with the group are trained to help Butte County emergency personnel in cases of fires, floods and other natural disasters.

The last time the group was activated was in May, during the Honey Fire in Butte Creek Canyon just below the Skyway. Volunteers were on site ready to respond, but fortunately they weren’t needed. They were also on standby for the recent fires in San Diego County but weren’t called on.

Magalia resident Lezlie Morrow has been a volunteer since 2004. She has two cats and three dogs, and she found the group’s ideals satisfied her need to help people and animals when they need it most.

“Disasters don’t happen conveniently,” Morrow said. “They can occur at any time, and you have to put your life on hold … while you’re helping others.”

When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast in 2005, Morrow did just that. She dropped everything and went to Jackson, Miss., as a volunteer with United Nations for Animals, spending most of her time in a shelter caring for animals.

Morrow had an “eye-opening, life-changing, mind-blowing” experience at the Superdome, where she saw the sorrow and pain felt by people who were giving up their pets because they couldn’t take them inside the stadium.

Animals, mostly dogs, were picked up from the streets by other volunteers and brought to the shelter in overflowing truckloads. The dogs were in the poorest condition she’d ever seen. They were fearful, traumatized and physically weak.

The volunteers were also weak and traumatized. Some days, Morrow said, she wanted to step outside the makeshift shelter and have a good cry.

“You just have to step out of that realm and put all of your training in place,” she said.

NVADG volunteers train with CalFire, but they are not expected to enter dangerous situations. The group must follow the Incident Command System, as do all emergency personnel. Volunteers don’t rescue pets; they evacuate them. Families whose homes may be endangered should contact the group or emergency personnel before the threat becomes immediate.

Volunteers are split into two groups, evacuation and shelter. Those in the evacuation group actually go onto properties to get animals out. Horses are commonly evacuated, Doolittle said.

Members of the shelter group nurture the pets that are evacuated and take care of such duties as paperwork and handling supplies.

Shelters are set up on safe grounds predetermined by CalFire and other emergency agencies. For example, during the Honey Fire, most emergency personnel were stationed at the Tuscan Ridge Golf Course on the Skyway.

At NVADG, all volunteers must go through hours of training ranging from basic introductory ICS courses to advanced levels of emergency-response procedures. They also train to handle all types of animals, from cats and dogs to llamas and snakes.

Volunteers are on call 11 months out of the year, December being their only month off and May through November, fire season, the busiest period. There’s no central office; instead, a hotline, 895-0000, is routed to volunteers’ personal phone lines, depending on whose turn it is to answer calls.

As a nonprofit, NVADG relies heavily on community donations and federal grants. Most of its needs are equipment such as radios and personal-protection outfits. But in times of need, the community has really stepped up, Doolittle said.

She and Morrow admit volunteering takes a lot of commitment and time. The two both have full-time jobs and other obligations. But ultimately, being prepared to help people and their animals brings the most satisfaction.

“We all [volunteer] because we all have animals,” Doolittle said. “If it was me I’d want someone to help me. It’s so much but so worth it, ‘cause we’ll be ready.”