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Groups return to active wildfire areas to rescue animals left behind in evacuations

Posted at 12:54 PM, Jul 11, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-11 14:54:12-04

TELLER COUNTY — As firefighters continue to fight blazes around the state, a small group of people hurry around them, rescuing the animals left behind in the rapid evacuations.

Depending on the area, sometimes those people are part of the police department’s animal control teams. Other times, they’re part of community organizations.  

The communities affected by the High Chateau Fire in central Teller County had both.

Scott Halladay is the founder and emergency coordinator of JeffCo H.E.A.T. (Horse Evacuation Assistance Team). As a horse owner and self-proclaimed “semi-retired” firefighter, Halladay understands how to help without disrupting the work of the fire departments.  

Extracting the large animals and bringing them to safety is no easy feat, but it is well-orchestrated, he said.

“You leave your emotions and your adrenaline in the truck and you very calmly and very methodically get the animals,” he said.

They are loaded into trailers and taken to animal housing areas or fairgrounds.

Each of the 20 current volunteers in JeffCo H.E.A.T. have gone through the same training as the local fire department, ensuring they understand accountability and safety in fire situations, as well as how to work as an asset instead of a liability, he said.

While volunteers are often called into active fire areas, they aren’t allowed to go where the fire risk is too high. Human safety will always trump animal safety, Halladay said.

“That’s often times a hard pill for us to swallow,” he said.

The group also exercises restraint when prepping to go to these fires. Halladay said they won’t go until they’re dispatched by the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department. And when that happens, they’ll only send the volunteers needed, no extras.

“That’s probably one of the most frustrating things,” he said. “We want to throw the world at it and often times, they don’t want that. When we do these things, we need to follow the command structures.”

Four volunteers were dispatched to the High Chateau Fire, he said.

They get to see many reunions and, in some case, they help the owner transport the animals back to the home after the evacuation is lifted.

Teller County Animal Control Officer Trixie Hudspeth also works to evacuate animals after their owners have left, and said those reunions are “tear-jerking.”

“It makes you feel really good — the reunion of the animals coming back (to their owners) like, ‘There’s my mom,’ or ‘There’s my dad,’” she said.

She’s been in animal control for 11 years.

After a wildfire breaks out, one of her top priorities is to meet with evacuated pet owners at the staging area to learn exactly where the animals are, and, if possible, their names.

“A lot of animal control is knowing what animals are in the county and where they are,” she said.

She said she’s never quite sure what she’ll run into when she goes into the communities. Sometimes she comes across aggressive dog chained in the backyard. Sometimes, she has to coax a cat out from hiding. She’s had to monitor a person’s pigs as a fire neared to see if an evacuation was needed. In one case, she visited a home in a relatively safe area and fed the family lizard.

And sometimes, it’s a much bigger ordeal. They once had to evacuate a ranch that had 126 horses, she said. With only a handful of available trailers, the going was slow to get the animals away from the fire, but they had rescued all the horses within an hour.

In the case of the High Chateau Fire, which broke out around noon on a Friday, most people were at work, Hudspeth said. Many people were able to grab their animals as they evacuated, she said, but many could not. In some of those instances, the people refuse to leave the home without the pet.

“That’s why animals are such a big part of fires,” Hudspeth said.

As an animal control officer, she’s skilled at reading a dog or cat, and said most of them are thrilled to see anybody who comes in the front door after being alone for a few days. They’re sometimes scared or disoriented, and every now and then she encounters one that’s protective of the home, but they’re usually happy to leave with a person, she said.

She also snaps a picture of the home before leaving it, to ensure the pet is returned to the right family. Owners must show ID at the shelter to claim the animal, she said.

“It’s a rewarding career,” she said. “It has tear-jerking moments. All the people who do this are just above and beyond. We work in the animal field for a reason.”

As of Tuesday, the High Chateau Fire was 100 percent contained and three people had been charged with first-degree arson in connection to the fire.