As a family of evacuees left the remote Alberta community of Fox Lake, their dogs followed, running down the driveway and then sitting and watching as their family drove away, waiting, perhaps, for them to turn around and come back.
In the community of some 3,600 people, accessible only by ice road in the winter, and barge or plane in the summer, evacuees were told they had to leave their dogs, birds, cats and other pets behind.
“I cried so much when they sat there looking at us leaving them,” reads the message.
It was posted anonymously, a direct message between a Fox Lake resident and Robin Bellerose, who runs the New Beginnings Animal Rescue Society in neighbouring High Level.
Bellerose has been struggling for days to get the necessary help for the pets who were left behind. She has counted around 100 animals, that she knows of, who’ve been left in homes, or left to run free, or tethered in yards, left behind during the rushed evacuation that began last Wednesday as the Paskwa wildfire bore down on the town.
Darreyl Sowan, the emergency management communications co-ordinator, said whenever there’s an emergency, human life is the top priority for rescuers.
“The firefighters out there are feeding the dogs as they see them,” Sowan said.
While non-emergency personnel are not allowed into the area, because it disrupts operations such as water bombing, Sowan said they’re doing the best they can to take care of the animals that remain behind.
Last week, some 20 homes, plus a shop and the police station, burned down. The fire, classified as “out of control,” is around 4,000 hectares — about 40 square kilometres.
On social media, there are frantic posts of people looking for information about their four-legged family members, including a number of puppies. Posts have implored firefighters who’ve stayed behind to cut loose any animals tethered, so that they can at least run, should the worst happen.
Johnette Blesse was among those who had to leave her animals behind. Fox Lake has been her home her entire life, and in her memory, it has never had to be fully evacuated.
“(The fire) was pretty far from us, from where we live, but we could see all the smoke coming up and it was just getting worse by the minute,” said Blesse.
When the call came to get in the truck and leave home, the family was under the impression they’d be put on a bus and taken from the community — it made sense, Blesse said, that they couldn’t have animals all over the bus.
“In my head I was thinking ‘Oh, I’ll just be gone for a day and I’ll be back tomorrow,’” said Blesse.
Given that Fox Lake is so remote, the evacuation has been unlike the high-stakes flight from Fort McMurray in 2016, when people fleeing in trucks and other vehicles filmed and sometimes livestreamed as “The Beast” tore a path of destruction towards the city. Residents of Fox Lake were unable to flee by road. They had to await a ride across the river on a barge, sometimes in their own vehicle or someone else’s, or on a bus. The evacuation, said Blesse, took some people several hours.
When Blesse left, her dogs Betty and Butter, who is pregnant, were left inside the house. She’s now in La Crête, another hamlet along the Peace River. Mason, Blesse’s dad’s large dog, was also left tethered in the yard to avoid a scrap with neighbouring animals.
“I kept thinking, my pets don’t even have a fighting chance because they’re in the house,” Blesse said.
But, she was able to get in touch with someone working fighting the fires, and asked them to let the dogs out and untether Mason.
“The firefighters and the ground personnel in Fox Lake have been letting pets out of homes and untying them just so they do have a chance to run at least,” said Blesse.
She’s hopeful, when she gets home, her dogs will come running at the sound of her voice.
Adding insult to injury, Bellerose said some evacuees seem to have been able to take their pets with them. Others, though, were left behind.
For those left behind, Bellerose has been collecting pails for water and food, in hopes that they can be taken to the pets that are still in Fox Lake. But she has been unable to get access to the town, apparently for safety reasons.
Still, some of the firefighters on scene have been doing their best to take care of the animals.
Photos posted to social media show firefighters with enormous bags of kibble, feeding a number of dogs in a field in town. Residents identified their pets in the photos, thanking the firefighters for taking the time to feed them.
Others have posted on social media asking if anyone in town can swing by their houses and check on their pets.
“If they are still there, maybe feed them and give them water please,” says one such post. “The dog food is in the first bedroom and their dog dishes are probably on the steps outside.”
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