Care in a crisis

John Maretti

Photo by Vic Cantu

It’s no secret that many people love their pets—some more than they love other people, even. So when something like the Oroville Dam evacuation or a wildfire forces residents to leave their homes, accommodating beloved animals—livestock included—becomes critical. In 2002, John Maretti founded the nonprofit North Valley Animal Disaster Group (NVADG) to help out. NVADG volunteers go to homes, retrieve pets and transfer them to shelters, or care for them on-site. Maretti, a retired Chico firefighter and technical rescue specialist, also founded Animal Rescue Training ( to teach animal rescue techniques, and teaches human rescue methods with Code 3 Rescue Training ( Find the NVADG on Facebook for more information, including how to become a volunteer.

Why did you start up the NVADG?

As a Chico firefighter, I would see people running from fires with their horses. Two people actually died because they would not leave their animals behind during wildland fires. I organized meetings with local emergency services and created the NVADG.

How would you describe what the organization does?

During disasters, we work with emergency services to evacuate animals and set up temporary shelters. If people can’t get their animals out, they can call our hotline or email us. Once there, we feed, water and walk them daily. During the Oroville Dam overflow, we got 450 calls in the first six hours.

What sets the NVADG apart from other rescue operations?

We’re so successful because we work within the federal Incident Command System, which coordinates groups during a disaster. It was set up after the Katrina disaster, which got really, really ugly. I helped during Katrina, but many rogue helpers evacuated animals from areas without telling others, which created more problems. Lots of animals died from starvation or dehydration.

How did the NVADG do during the Oroville Dam evacuation?

I didn’t hear of any problems with the animals. It started with a public evacuation order but was then downgraded to an evacuation warning, so we stopped evacuating animals after the third day. When owners requested it, we even went to their homes to feed and water their animals daily if they couldn’t go there. That’s called a shelter in place.

What areas does your organization cover?

Well, 90 percent of our services are for fires in Butte County, but we can go all over the Western U.S.

What kinds of reactions do you get from animal owners?

Homeowners cry from the loss of their homes, but kids often only care about their puppy. We get many thanks verbally, but sometimes monetarily to help out our cause. It’s extremely expensive. The Oroville Dam disaster alone cost us $5,000 for gas.

What’s the best advice you can give animal owners in case of disaster?

Always have a disaster plan in case you can’t evacuate your animals. Arrange a backup with your neighbors, or have our hotline number or email handy.