BC Wildfires 2017: Lessons Learnable

Lessons learned and lessons learnable from the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team (CDART)

By Cheryl Rogers

Lone Butte on fire-Brandon Plewe

After a series of wildfires in BC in 2003, the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team (CDART) was founded to provide emergency services for domestic animals, as well as train volunteers to rescue and provide emergency shelter for domestic animals during disasters.

It is ironic that CDART’s assistance in the 2017 BC wildfires actually started with our deployment to a flooding event, near Merritt. While responding to the flood, we were further deployed to the first fire in Kaleden, and then later to fires in 100 Mile House, Princeton, Kamloops, Interlakes, Summerland, and Cranbrook. These incidents pushed our organization to the brink, in turn revealing a number of lessons for CDART as we move forward.

Volunteer Shortages

Assisting in fires in multiple venues drained our limited qualified human resources, highlighting our need for more trained volunteers ready to deploy. In addition, trained animal disaster responders, like other emergency responders, follow the Incident Command System (ICS); attempting to involve volunteers who are not familiar and comfortable with ICS can create organizational problems that take time away from the critical task of saving animals. We also lacked trained volunteers with past disaster experience who were willing and able to take on leadership positions.

Given the magnitude of the forest fire situation in 2017, CDART needed more volunteers than ever before and accepted many convergent – or walk-in – volunteers who stepped up to help. However, we require that untrained volunteers at least have animal handling experience and people untrained in ICS were placed with a trained buddy. Additionally, animals needed to be moved using trucks and trailers, so volunteer haulers were very important to our efforts, but haulers had to agree to comply with our rules and work under ICS.

Despite these additions, fatigue reduced the numbers of volunteers as the summer progressed and we continued to find ourselves shorthanded.

Communication Challenges

A lack of community preparedness for emergencies in towns in which we were working created difficulties for CDART that were exacerbated by the many simultaneous fires. Many towns had no pre-identified sheltering locations for animals or pre-identified resource lists for food, supplies, or veterinary care. In our rush to obtain resources, confused communications sometimes resulted. Many people attempting to help dropped off supplies they saw as necessary, whether or not these were actually needed or expected. These unsolicited contributions made inventory management a challenge, as we found ourselves dealing with overloads of some items at the same time as we were in danger of running out of others.

Meanwhile, a lot of our time and energy had to be directed to monitoring social media to correct misinformation and defuse panic caused by hysterical posts and reactions. In a disaster situation, social media can create as many problems as it solves, due to inability to control the message. In this situation, social media created an upsurge in the number of rogue rescuers jumping in to “help,” but without understanding what was needed, reporting to anyone in authority, or documenting what they had done. Some of these individuals took animals without permission or lacked a plan for returning the animals home once it was safe to do so. Still others overloaded or incorrectly loaded trailers. These individuals created havoc as well as dangerous situations that put both animal and human lives at risk.

Other animal welfare groups who wanted to become involved in animal rescue as the summer wildfire season continued could be difficult to coordinate and collaborate with, because very few had disaster experience or familiarity with ICS. While some understood what was needed, others failed to fully register that we were in an emergency situation in which our priority was to assist all evacuees, whether animals or people.

Other Lessons Learned

A need for better integration of animals with the human responses became readily apparent over the summer, as local emergency management demonstrated a lack of awareness about the existence of CDART, the services we can provide, or the value of our expertise in the field of animal disaster response. In some cases, our volunteers had difficulty obtaining access to areas where animals were in need of help. In others, chaotic communications and poor collaboration required us to meet inconsistent and changing requirements to enter evacuated areas to save animals.

As professional responders, CDART does not try to talk our way past roadblocks, but always complies with the rules governing entry. We appreciated it when requirements controlling access to evacuated areas were stable and consistently applied by authorities. This was especially true in situations where we maintained animals in their places (feeding, watering, and cleaning), when our volunteers needed to be able to return regularly to properties, and when difficulties with re-entry caused delays resulting in anxiety for both volunteers and owners.

We also learned we needed to improve our communication with owners. Human resource shortages over the summer meant we had to prioritize evacuating, sheltering, and caring for animals over providing regular updates to owners. But for worried owners – even those following us on Facebook or helping out at our shelters – nothing could replace personal communications about the status of their animals.

We also observed that as the fire situation continued to expand, we came to neglect demobilization and worker care, and proper debriefs weren’t always conducted in a timely manner. Even our ability to feed volunteers became inconsistent. During most disasters, Emergency Support Services (ESS) arranges food for CDART volunteers. However, during the 2017 wildfires, due to the excessive demand on the ESS resources, it was sometimes difficult to obtain meals for volunteers at some sites. Further, many volunteers and even coordinators did not want to take breaks and had to be told to stand down, while some volunteers took too much time away from their families, jobs, and lives.

Too much stuff-Donna Toews

The rolling fires also meant that acknowledgements of donations and other services rendered suffered delays and on occasion fell through the cracks in the aftermath. When people support you, they have a right to be recognized in a timely manner. Because of the focus on animal care throughout the summer, CDART personnel, who are all volunteers, needed a lot of time to catch up with everything else once the wildfire responses were over.

Cheryl Rogers is a chartered professional accountant and has been involved as a volunteer with disaster response for animals since 1999. She is a founding member and national coordinator of the Canadian Disaster Animal Response Team (CDART), and does public presentations and training on animal disaster response.

Watch a heartwarming reunion with rescued goats and their owner in Princeton, BC in July 2017.