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The big event for Larimer Humane Society (LHS) on Saturday, June 9, was supposed to be a dog-friendly 5K walk/run fundraiser and pet expo at a local park.
Stephanie Ashley, marketing and community outreach program manager for the nonprofit shelter in northern Colorado, got up that morning and helped with the event. “As we’re packing up and leaving,” she recalls, “we see this huge plume of smoke. And all of us just looked at each other like, ‘That’s not good.’”
The smoke was coming from what they soon realized was a serious wildfire in High Park, near Fort Collins. Reportedly sparked by a lightning strike, the High Park fire grew to be one of the largest and most destructive in the state’s history, engulfing more than 87,000 acres and destroying about 250 homes before firefighters contained it by the end of June.
The fire, one of several that raged in Colorado last summer, presented a significant challenge for LHS, the largest open-admission shelter in the region. The shelter—which contracts to provide animal control and sheltering to several local areas—took the lead on coordinating animal rescue efforts, and wound up taking in 638 displaced animals.
Rescuers had to cope with a fire that changed directions several times based on the wind and the weather. The shelter’s typical operating procedures were disrupted for the better part of a month. “It really was nothing but every single person devoting almost all of their time to fire response in some fashion,” Ashley says.
In the edited interview that follows, she discusses the fire and its impact on LHS with Animal Sheltering associate editor James Hettinger.
Animal Sheltering: What was the shelter’s response to the High Park fire?
Stephanie Ashley: We were prepared, because we had been ready to take in animals [from] some of the other [earlier] wildfires, but didn’t really need to. So we had things down, as far as being ready at the shelter and having room for the animals. We immediately stepped up to the plate and wanted to be that lead agency that could coordinate all the care for the animals, because we didn’t know what this was going to look like—whether it was going to be no animals, or just a few animals, or, like it turned out to be, over 600 animals. We just stepped up and said, “Bring your animals here,” and of course over at The Ranch [a local events complex] they were taking large animals, and we were in close contact with them.
You coordinated the rescue efforts with a bunch of different groups?
We did. Once we started to see animals coming in, it was an influx. We were open really late that very first night, and we had, I don’t even know how many animals came in that first day, but we started to realize, OK, this is already much bigger than any of the fires that we have responded to. We immediately got on the phone with other organizations locally here—boarding facilities and veterinary clinics, and so on, to make sure that they would be backups should we reach capacity in our shelter. As more and more animals came in, we started to contact other local shelters, like the Humane Society of Boulder Valley, to see if they had room to take our adoptable animals, so that we could make room for the evacuated animals. At one point we didn’t have any adoptable animals in our shelter; they were all off site.
Were the animals you were taking in rescued from homes, or had people gotten them out in advance of the fire?
It was a mix. We have animal protection and control as part of our organization. They were rescuing animals out of the fire zone. They were going in with fire escorts, and bringing animals out. Folks were calling our dispatch at all hours of the day to report, “My dog is still up there,” or “I couldn’t get my cat—it ran away.” The local sheriff’s posse was helping with the larger animals, and getting them out the same way. We were taking all the calls, so we were the central contact for all animal-related concerns.
We also did have a number of people that were able to get their animals out and get them to us. We had very large dogs, because they were up in the mountainous areas where there [are] very large properties. We had larger dogs than we anticipated, and we had lots of cats. We had tons and tons of chickens. We actually had a goat at our shelter at one point as well. We had some different exotic animals. For the most part, it was only evacuated animals in our shelter for a good few weeks there.
What was it like day to day to see all these animals coming in? I imagine people were working around the clock?
They were. We heavily relied on our volunteer base, and those volunteers needed to be our trained volunteers. We needed people to be able to come in and walk the dogs several times a day. A lot of these dogs are used to being out in a field and having plenty of room, and so we wanted to make sure they stayed healthy and happy. We had tons of volunteers that were coming in and helping with that, and helping keep everything clean. We were experiencing an amazing outpouring of support with in-kind donations, and so we had volunteers that were helping to build additional sheds and storage space to house all of that, because we were literally up to our rafters in dog food and bleach and towels and everything else.
I think everybody was expecting that people would be dropping off dog food, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for the level of support that we received. When I say we were up to our rafters, I mean there were entire rooms that we couldn’t even go into, because they were full of supplies and food. Home Depot actually donated a storage shed and came and built it for us outside of the shelter, just to put all of that stuff in, so we could continue regular business. I don’t think anybody had really experienced anything to that level before, and it was incredible.
It was one of those learning [experiences] where we determined it’s probably not the best idea to ask for in-kind donations, just because we were running out of room, and we already needed the room for all of the animals. So it’s probably best to focus on monetary donations in the future.
Are you equipped to handle chickens for any length of time?
We are equipped to take in chickens, and we have them regularly for adoption. However, there were so many more than what we could handle that we did start to work with The Ranch. They were the place that was taking in the larger animals, and they had much more room for pens for the chickens as well. Things shifted throughout this whole tragedy. So it was really just having that close communication with all those different agencies here in our community, and figuring out, “What’s working for you all? What’s not? What can we do? What can we change?” and going with it as it came.
Where do things stand now?
In terms of operations, they’re back to normal. The animals have all gone home. There were just a few [owners] that were not able to take their animals back, and asked us to care for them and put them up for adoption, which we did. The way it impacted us is, for the greater part of a month, we were purely a reactive organization. Instead of being proactive and trying to do adoptions, it really changed our entire business model, and we were just reacting to the community needs at the time. Everything that’s on our calendar for the year is really to the day planned out, so everything’s just pushed back. We had to rearrange dates for events, rearrange deadlines, and we’re still really feeling that uphill battle to get caught back up with everything.
I guess another element to the situation is that you were dealing with people who were very emotional?
Absolutely. We had a presence over at the shelter for people that the Red Cross had set up. We experienced a lot of very upset and frantic and worried people, understandably so. A lot of them were given no time to collect their belongings, to collect their animals. If they’re on these big properties, it’s hard for them to collect all the animals and get out of there very quickly—they were actually being yelled at to just go, get out, because the fire was moving so fast. It was upwards of several dozen feet high, I think, at some point. They were just so worried, and I can completely empathize with that. We were dealing with a lot of people who were going through that, and [we were] directing them to come back and give us updates, and to call our animal protection and control, and let them know “I have a dog at this address,” and give a description so that we could get up there as soon as possible and help them.
How long were you dealing with the fire altogether?
I’d say at the end of one full week of responding and seeing really no end in sight, we started to think, OK, we need to really have streamlined processes in place, and that’s when we started to implement a bunch of changes. At around the month mark, we were starting to be able to breathe again, and lots of animals were going home. Although we still did have some in our shelter, we were working with those families to find out what their long-term plans were, giving them advice on how to handle things long-term, and where they can take animals.
Were there any big lessons you learned?
We’re just so much more equipped now for disasters in the future. Every single department learned so much about how to utilize volunteers, how to better respond to something like this. We completely revamped our website just to handle the immense amount of incoming calls and emails that we were having about people wanting to help in the community. And what we learned is that we just didn’t have the staff to be on the phone all day, every day, answering those requests, so we re-equipped our website to handle all of that, and redirect folks. I think that was a big learning experience.