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How One California Animal Shelter is Responding to the State's Wildfires


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Mike, a 3-year-old cattle dog, was brought to the Humane Society of Ventura County for safety and treatment following injuries from the wildfires in Ojai, Calif.

Humane Society of Ventura County

California’s reputation for seasons of earthquakes, mudslides and fires is well deserved. The fall fire season of 2017 was particularly brutal, and in early December, Southern California erupted into a late-season series of wind-driven conflagrations. With names like Skirball, Rye Canyon and Lilac, the Thomas fire, most notable for its ferocity and size, is still howling up the coastal canyons of the state, and bears the distinction as one of the largest fires in state history. 

Evacuations in numerous fire zones, both mandatory and voluntary, were quickly set in motion. As two-legged residents fled with pets and livestock in tow, animal rescue organizations and evacuation centers sprang into action, opening their doors to embrace displaced and abandoned animals. The efforts found these endeavors scrambling for food, water, bedding and veterinary supplies.

Many watched breathlessly as the television news presented fire scenes from across the region. Panicked horses bolted in terror and confusion ahead of meteoric flames, while more fortunate equines were loaded into trailers and hauled to safety. Transfixed, we glimpsed pets cradled in the arms of sprinting owners or heroic firefighters. A video of a terrified jackrabbit, saved from flames by a passerby, went viral.

As the Thomas inferno roared northward from its inception near Santa Paula, Calif., the morning of Dec. 4 found it bearing down on the isolated burg of Ojai, Calif., and surrounding communities. Residents prepared to run.

At the time the fire broke out, The Humane Society of Ventura County, a private, non-profit shelter located in Ojai, and serving people and animals in all of Ventura County, housed 91 dogs, cats and horses on its 4.4-acre premises. By day’s end, the 85-year-old “compassionate care shelter” was bursting at the seams as an additional 300 dogs, cats, horses, goats, chickens, snakes, alpacas and exotic birds seeking temporary refuge from the still-growing blaze. 

“The shelter is actually in a very safe location in the valley, and we weren’t worried about having to evacuate,” said Greg Cooper, director of community outreach. “Air quality is certainly a different issue, and our vets, vet techs and kennel staff are monitoring for symptoms that are respiratory in nature.”

The shelter remained open 24/7 for those in need during the emergency, and the community has rallied to ensure all of the animals are cared for in this time of tragedy.

“People began bringing in food and supplies before we even asked,” Cooper said.

Throughout the numerous fire areas, similar stories emerge. The power of community is evident, with many of these safe havens reporting storehouses full of necessities—for the moment. However, shelters throughout the state are looking down the road at the rebuilding process.

“We are encouraging people to help with our long-term goals. It could be months before some of these animals are ready to go home because some of their families have lost homes,” Cooper said. “We have a real need at this time for monetary donations through our Thomas Fire relief fund. Donations of this sort will be most effective going forward.”


To make a donation, visit hsvc.org/thomasfire.

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