Central Texas wildfires

Unsung heroes: Saving animals from the Central Texas wildfires

Unsung heroes: Saving animals from the Central Texas wildfires

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An ASPCA vet working on an injured dog from the Bastrop wildfires.
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The fire Austin Humane Society encountered when they went back to rescue the animals. Courtesy of Austin Humane Society
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Not just dogs and cats were rescued during the wildfires, but other animals as well. Courtesy of Austin Humane Society
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Loraine Joy and two dogs at home in Las Vegas
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The remains of Loraine's home
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Austin Photo Set: News_unsung heroes_September 2011_loraine remains

“I want to get back to rescuing animals, that’s my life,” expressed a distraught Lorraine Joy. A tireless animal rescue volunteer and board member with Big Dog Rescue, Joy lost her home when the Bastrop wildfires began to burn on September 4th

Joy isn’t used to being homeless or needing help; she is used to being the one lending a hand. But all of that changed on that fateful day in early September, when she found herself one of thousands of residents who lost their home and belongings in the scorching wildfires.

They live in a two-story home, surrounded by two acres in the piney woods region down the road from the Bastrop State Park.  

“In 2008, I left work and was fortunate to stay home and care for my granddaughter,” Joy elaborates. “I started volunteering at the Bastrop shelter walking dogs, taking photos of dogs up for adoption and posting the photos to Facebook.”

The Facebook page became a success and more people began visiting the site to learn information about adopting dogs at the Bastrop shelter.

“Eventually,” Joy adds, “I started an Urgent Bastrop Shelter dog page, uploading photos of dogs for adoption.” Joy is on the board of directors for Big Rescue (bigdogrescue.org), a non-profit organization formed in 2009 to rescue and rehabilitate big dogs and small dogs with big hearts. “We started a transport list,” says Joy, “it’s really become popular with volunteers all over; a woman in Rhode Island rescued dogs and took them to new homes in Wisconsin.”

Joy was relaxing in the pool when her son alerted her to the huge plume of smoke on the horizon. Joy, her husband and son, plus seven dogs (their four dogs plus three foster puppies) and a bearded dragon, piled into the car and headed for her daughter’s home in Smithville.

In the ensuing chaos, with the wildfires burning out of control and the family having to make quick, life-altering decisions, Julie, their cat, went missing. They were forced to evacuate, but Lorraine Joy kept returning to the ashes that she once called home, to leave food and water for Julie, just in case.

Good news arrived when Lorraine’s daughter saw a photo of Julie posted online by the Austin Humane Society. Julie found her family relatively unscathed by the fire, although the pads on her back paws had been badly burned by the fire.

On Monday, September 12, residents in the Lost Pines area of Bastrop were allowed to return to their homes to search for missing animals and lost mementos. “My son saw his best friend and helped him bury his Australian shepherd/collie mix, who died in the fires. He was deaf and was found trapped in the corner of his yard. I then heard my neighbor calling for her lost dogs, we talked a bit about resources available and then she told me her husband might have to have his arm amputated because of severe burns from trying to put out the flames after the fire first started.”

The combination of record-breaking heat in Central Texas plus record-breaking drought conditions made the area a tinderbox, ripe for wildfires. Kevin Baum, retired assistant chief with the Austin Fire Department, had studied wildfire conditions for the area and compared the risk to “sleeping with a stick of wet dynamite.” Experts say that what is different now in the Austin urban area is that urban sprawl is now mixing with wild land vegetation, producing potential sources of combustion.

The Bastrop County Complex fire, burning thousands of acres in Bastrop, has officially become the most devastating fire in Texas history. There were other smaller wildfires burning in Central Texas this month, including Leander (300-acre fire destroying eleven homes), Steiner Ranch (125-acre fire destroyed 25 homes) and Williamson County (300-acre fire destroyed 13 homes).

It Took a Village

There were a number of Austin agencies chipping in to help Bastrop with their animal rescue, including Austin Pets Alive, Austin Humane Society, Town Lake Animal Center and the Austin Fire Department. Here are some of their stories of rescue attempts as the tragedy was unfolding:

We had an active presence in Bastrop and continue to be active. We’ve taken in dogs and cats, we’ve rescued three pigs, guinea fowls and rabbits all recovered from affected areas. On Sunday (September 11), we helped evacuate pets from the Bastrop shelter. SAR (official Search-and-Rescue teams with Texas Task Force 1 began officially searching for people and animals. We provided temporary housing for injured animals, animals with burned paws, broken limbs and on Thursday we began to see animals with more serious health issues. SAR left on Monday (September 12) and today (September 15) Bastrop residents who live in Tahitian Village are being allowed to go back home. We’ve received five animals today, animals that have been found by Bastrop residents. We are closed to the public while we continue to try our best to find the owners of these lost animals. We anticipate being open again on Monday, September 19th.

Lisa Starr, Public Relations Manager with the Austin Humane Society

We at Austin Animal Services (AAS) mobilized our Animal Protection & Control officers to deliver emergency animal sheltering supplies to Bastrop on Sunday morning, Sept. 4. On Monday, AAS deployed to set up emergency pet shelters with the Red Cross for the Spicewood and Steiner Ranch fires. Later in the day we teamed up with Travis County deputies and constables to enter homes and yards in Steiner Ranch (with permission) to pick up or feed/water pets who were left behind in the evacuation.  Texas A & M also arrived at the forward command in Bastrop on Wednesday, 9/7, with a mobile veterinary clinic and did triage on all rescued animals.

Amber Rowland, Communications Manager, Austin Animal Services with the Town Lake animal Center

During the Bastrop fires, Pass served as a place where people with pets left behind could call or email with their address, types of pets, whether they were inside or outside and whether or not they gave us permission to access by breaking a window, etc. that information went onto a spreadsheet, was then pinned on a map and sent out to our rescue team on the ground and Animal control went from house to house trying to find and help the animals.

Patty Lepley Alexander, volunteer with Austin Pets Alive Pass program (Positive Alternative to Shelter Surrender)

We sent about fifty folks to Bastrop and ten pieces of equipment. A handful is still there and we don’t expect them back until next week. I think it would be safe to say that all of our folks were involved in animal rescue in some form or fashion, although not as a ‘formal’ part of any team. They just helped out those that could that they came across.

Michelle DeCrane, Public Information Officer for the Austin Fire Department

We are trying to take as many pets stranded by the wildfires as we can, not strays (they will stay in the Bastrop shelter), and help them find temporary foster homes. We have a good relationship with Animal Control in Bastrop. This has been difficult, we had to get permission to enter homes, we saw downed lines, we were breathing unhealthy air. We have a resource mobile clinic offering vet care.

Gretchen  Meyer, Marketing/PR Director with Austin Pets Alive

The wildfires are still not 100% contained in Bastrop, but all residents have been allowed to re-enter their homes. If you would like to check on your missing pet, call the Bastrop Animal Shelter at (512) 549-5160.