As the Holiday Farm Fire reaches more than 161,000 acres with five percent containment, residents who live in communities along the McKenzie River are still largely unable to return to their homes and rescue and feed pets that were left behind in the urgent evacuation. Lane County and other official channels only started taking action on Sept. 14 — a week after the fires began.
Many of pets that were unable to be evacuated have been without food and water since Sept. 8, stuck inside dangerous Level 3 evacuation zones where citizens are not allowed without an escort.
Since initially there was no official person in charge and no organized action, volunteers mobilized through a local Facebook group have taken matters into their own hands, collecting supplies and sending trained people into the evacuation zones to search, rescue and provide care for animals.
“Its unacceptable that we are this grossly underprepared in Lane County,” says Julie Ohashi, who was one of the original people working with the group and had previously helped with animal rescues for California’s 2018 Camp Fire. Ohashi is located in Michigan, but spent a decade working in animal welfare in Lane County. She adds that her familiarity with organizing on a large scale lended itself for helping during the Holiday Farm Fire, located along the McKenzie River east of Springfield.
The Facebook page, called “Holiday Farm (McKenzie) Fire Animal Rescue (Lane Co),” is a public group where people can fill out a Google Form to request services or evacuation for their animals. Some post in the group discussion when they are reunited with their pet and others offer supplies or part of their property to shelter a displaced pet.
Each day, Ohashi says a group of search and rescuers, led by active military escorts, presents their list of places they want to go and retrieve pets. The Lane County Sheriff’s Office then determines which places are safe enough to venture into and which parts of the evacuation zone are dangerous, as conditions can change daily. Once inside the area, Ohashi says the search and rescue team keeps in contact with LCSO and the Oregon Department of Transportation.
“You don’t want to take a horse rig to a place you can’t get back from. We don’t want to be causing a problem for officials,” she says.
Ohashi says they bring as many supplies as they can into the evacuation zone, including panels to make corrals, as well as chicken feed and dry cat and dog food. Their donations mainly come through Lucky Paws. Because some animals, like cats, are difficult to catch and may be hiding, she says that sometimes all they can do is put out food and water and hope pets can access it.
Once the animals are rescued, Ohashi says they are taken to a triage center based on the size and type of the pet. Small animals like dogs, cats and other pocket pets are taken to VCA McKenzie Animal Hospital in Springfield. Livestock and birds are still being triaged at the Lane County Fairgrounds. Once the animals are deemed stable, the small pets are transferred to Greenhill Humane Society, which serves as the lost and found.
But there is only so much they can do, Ohashi says. They have roughly 83 active requests for help in either providing food and water or evacuating animals, and they are trying to get to as many as they can. She emphasizes that many animals have been without food and water for days now, in addition to inhaling the smoke and being at risk if the fire changes course.
Because of how quickly fires move, Ohashi emphasizes not to judge people who were forced to leave their pets behind. Many people hardly had time to evacuate and survive, which meant they couldn’t load up their horses or go looking for their cats.
“People go to work. And within one hour of wind change, that fire is on top of you,” Ohashi says. “People are quick to judge and that is not what survivors need.”
The group only recently received a permit from the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, which gives them more access to the burn zone. They are only now seeing action from Lane County Animal Services and Eugene and Springfield animal control. Lane County did not respond to comment as of press time.
Ohashi says her biggest concern right now is the cats and other animals owners have marked “stuck at home” since families have evacuated. She says she’s frustrated at the lack of coordination after almost a week, and that if some of the animals are not rescued or provided water soon, they will die.
“I have multiple ‘stuck in home’ tickets that we cannot get to,” Ohashi says. “There is a ton of disorganization, there is no chain of command in place.”
Greenhill Humane Society is currently working to compile a master document of lost and found pets from evacuated areas. If you have created any lists so far, or have a lost animal, please email email@example.com with your name and contact info.