As a wildfire rages in suburban Halifax, efforts are underway to rescue pets that had to be left behind when owners were ordered to stay away from homes too close to the encroaching flames.
An eight-member team from the Nova Scotia SPCA was preparing Tuesday afternoon to head out into the evacuation zone to retrieve animals from homes people had been asked to flee, said spokesperson Sarah Lyon. She said owners have been calling the agency since the sweeping evacuations on Sunday to say they hadn’t been able to rescue their pets in time.
The fire has been devastating for everyone, she said, adding that there are SPCA employees who don’t know if they’ll have a home to return to.
“If we can take one less anxious moment off of you so that you can just love your pets and find comfort in your pets,” she said, her voice breaking. “We’re here to help.”
Halifax deputy fire Chief David Meldrum said Tuesday that firefighters spent the night extinguishing hot spots in Tantallon-area neighbourhoods where 200 homes and structures have been damaged since the fire started Sunday. It remains unclear how many homes have been destroyed because surveys have yet to be completed.
In all, about 16,000 people have been ordered to leave their homes, most of which are within a 30-minute drive of the port city’s downtown.
In the parking lot of an Upper Tantallon arena that has been turned into a firefighting command post, Julie Clarke and Amy Wells had set up an impromptu centre to provide firefighters and municipal animal control officers with names and descriptions of animals still in the evacuated communities.
They’ve set up a Facebook group, called HRM-Tantallon Wildfire Lost Pets, where people can provide information about their missing or stranded animals.
“We’re here to help people reunite with their animals,” Wells told reporters, adding: “It doesn’t matter if it’s an amphibian, or a bird, or your beloved pet fish, we will do what we can.”
Some posts are heartbreaking; one was from someone who had to leave their cat and dog, and then found out their home was destroyed. The appeal was posted just in case the animals got free and were spotted.
But there are also posts from people overwhelmed with gratitude after their furry family members were returned to their arms. Wells and Clarke estimated they helped reunite about 50 animals with owners on Monday, including a pet pig named Peppa.
By Wednesday, their list of animals to rescue had grown to about 200.
In a nearby grocery store parking lot, Sonya Higgins said she and more than 40 others were waiting in their cars to be led into the evacuation area by RCMP officers, in hopes of retrieving pets. Higgins runs a cat rescue operation in Halifax, and said she was there on behalf of two people who’d previously adopted cats from her. She’s also taken in cats whose owners were displaced by the fire, but were able to grab their pets when they fled, she said.
The pet owners contacting her are “frantic,” Higgins said.
“They’re beside themselves,” she said. “They said the house burning is property, but their pets are family.”
The SPCA is also taking in animals rescued by their owners as they fled. Lyon said that by early Tuesday morning, they’d taken in more than 100 pets. They were also offering free pet food, cat litter and other supplies to owners, she said.
“It’s emotional, but I’m glad that we’re here,” Lyon said.
In Windsor, N.S., Barb Rockwell and her team at the Hants County Exhibition facility were sheltering 45 horses that arrived Sunday night from a stable in Hammonds Plains, where many homes are under an evacuation order. Members of the local horse community pitched in to help transport the animals, and those without horse trailers showed up with hay, water buckets and other gear, she said.
“It’s no small feat trailering that many horses from Hammonds Plains to Windsor, and under very stressful circumstances,” said Rockwell, facility manager for the Windsor Agricultural Society, which owns the arena and stables.
Rockwell said some local stables didn’t have time to transport their horses to safety, and their owners had to set them loose as the fire approached. All of the horses she knew of that had been set free have since been found, but she said it would have been a terrifying ordeal for their owners and caretakers.
“Imagine if it was your child. Same thing,” she said. “These horses are loved by their owners.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2023.
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