Kitty was stranded and then rescued in the Fort McMurray fire. (Photo courtesy of Natalie McLeod)
While no reported human casualties or major injuries have been caused by a raging wildfire in Fort McMurray, Alberta that has forced 80,000 people out of the city, the fate of many pets that were left behind in the evacuation remains uncertain.Several Facebook groups have been set up for desperate pet owners to post photos and locations, in case anyone is nearby, and it seems to be working. On Thursday, many received word that strangers, who took it upon themselves to rescue animals by the truckload, had found their pets after seeing their posts on Facebook.
Natalie Dawn McLeod, who is now in a house with 11 strangers in Devon, Alberta, said she was downtown when she saw flames above treetops, and within minutes she was stuck in gridlock in her Jeep.Her four-year-old cat, Kitty, was with her. They drove up through the area of Beacon Hill — one of the hardest hit neighbourhoods in Fort McMurray — and "at that point, we were surrounded in flames," she said."The smoke got so black that we really didn't know what we were driving into," she told VICE News, her voice breaking. "I thought I was driving into my death."
She recalled people driving off the highway and into the woods to escape the traffic, cars crashing into each other, and mothers running with their children. It was terror, she said."A guy came up on the side in his motorcycle, and I grabbed the cat and jumped on his bike, and he said, 'No, you can't take the cat,'" McLeod said. "So I threw my cat back in the jeep in its kennel and the window was already down and we fled on the motorcycle, basically through the woods and got out."Thursday morning, two days after she'd left him, McLeod still didn't know if Kitty had survived."I should've just let him run free," she said. "The fire was coming up on us so quickly that I could only think of survival for myself."
But about five minutes after her interview with VICE News came a positive turn of events. McLeod received word that Kitty had been rescued. A man named Bryce, whose last name she didn't know, has been driving around and rescuing animals, based on locations posted by owners on Facebook."All I could hear was dogs and cats, and I think I heard a horse," McLeod said about her conversation with Bryce. "People are willing to risk their lives for other people's animals, it's unbelievable."
Tamra Eden is one of the people praying that a rescuer will find her dog, an 8-year-old chi-weenie named Whiskey. She was out of town, and her husband was working with the emergency operations centre when the fires hit."When he heard that Beacon Hill was suddenly in danger, he raced home but the police wouldn't let him get the dog," she said. "My only hope is that someone heard him barking and got him out in time."Wyatt Colquhoun-Rivard is working with the Western Canadian Powerstrokes, a truck group from Edmonton that had voluntarily been refuelling stranded cars and fire trucks in the Fort McMurray area. On Thursday, they turned their focus on rescuing animals. Within minutes of posting on an animal rescue group on Facebook, Colquhoun-Rivard received about a dozen replies and messages.He said animals are being taken and registered at emergency reception centre at MacDonald Island right now, so that they can be reunited with owners when they return to Fort McMurray.
"We are currently waiting to see if we are able to start rescuing animals but people are rescuing them also," he said, adding that they're still blocked from entering certain parts of the city.In the coming days, more and more pet owners will find out the fate of their beloved companions. Requests for rescues are coming in by the minute from people who are asking anyone in the area to go to their homes, knock down their doors, and bring their pets to safety. Just as frequent are the posts about animals that have been miraculously recovered.The Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society is now centralizing requests - one form has been created for rescue requests and those looking for temporary placement for their pets, while another one is for anyone volunteering their services.Melissa Foley, founder of the Farm Animal Rescue and Rehoming Movement, said the requests received just by her organization now number in the hundreds."In the meantime, we've brought up tons of supplies," she said. "We've just been managing the intake of the dogs and cats that are either coming in with their owners or without towners, and trying to get misplaced animals back to their owners."She and her team are currently watching over about 80 animals that did make it out of the fire at an evacuation center in Lac La Biche. More animals are expected with an upcoming influx of thousands more people, she said.Megan Bastien, who did make the painful choice of letting three of her horses run free after the trailer that was supposed to get them got caught in traffic, is now desperately searching for them."Duke is a chestnut with a white stripe on his face. He is friendly and curious. Will go with anyone," she wrote in a Facebook post that's been shared nearly 5,000 times. "Summer is a chestnut with a white stripe on her face and four white socks. She is a little shy but will go wherever Duke goes.""Molly is a white and brown paint (spotted horse). She is friendly and quiet to lead," she wrote. Messages of sympathy and offers for help have been pouring in, but the horses are still missing.
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_t