Responding to Disaster: The Fort McMurray Fire

A disaster can happen when we least expect it. But when people step up, get involved and work together, difficult situations can be overcome and the Fort McMurray fire is a great example of this. From the start, the fires moved quickly, intensely and unpredictably. People were forced to evacuate with little warning – this meant many were powerless to return home and get the things most precious to them, above all, their pets. Others only had moments to gather a few things, a passport, their dog, but were unable to find their scared cat, hiding due to the commotion, or bring an aquarium with reptiles or fish too cumbersome for the precarious journey out. Many simply didn’t realize that the unrelenting fire would force them from their homes for so long.

After the mandatory evacuation, emergency responders and the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB) provided food and water to pets that remained in Fort McMurray. However due to the spreading fires and increasing smoke, pets needed to be evacuated as well. On Thursday May 5th, RMWB formally accepted the Alberta SPCA’s offer of assistance. The following day, Alberta SPCA Peace Officers chicken reunitedeployed to Fort McMurray with supplies to help with animal rescue efforts. RMWB also asked the Alberta SPCA to establish a reunification center in Edmonton to accept the significant number of animals coming from Fort McMurray, and provide a location to connect displaced owners with their pets. Many groups played a critical role in this enormous task. On Monday May 9th at 3:00 a.m., the first animals – 200 cats and 45 dogs – arrived at the reunification centre. They all received a health check by a veterinarian, food, water, microchip scan and an identification number to connect them with their family. Bella the dog was the first animal reunited with her owner at 5:00 pm that day. Over the next 10 days the centre took in 1181 animals, including dogs, Fort Mac - Cat Reunion 2cats, rabbits, reptiles, rodents, birds, fish and even chickens! To date, 888 animals have been united – those not yet claimed were transferred to other facilities and efforts to reunite these pets continue.

One of the positive outcomes from the fires is the overwhelming support from the public for the people of Fort McMurray and their animals. Over 600 volunteers worked at the reunification center alone. Veterinarians and veterinary technologists monitored the health of the animals, while volunteers cared for cats, dogs, rodents, exotic pets and birds, and helped with a variety of tasks from cleaning to reuniting families. There was an outpouring of donations of pet food and supplies. School groups, such as Mrs. Bell’s grade five class at Rutherford School in Edmonton held bake sales for those affected by the devastating fires, donating to the Red Cross helping people, and the Alberta SPCA assisting animals.

What can your students do?

When disasters happen, it’s natural to want to help, but figuring out what exactly to do can be overwhelming. Volunteering is an obvious choice for many, but age requirements can often be restrictive. There are still many meaningful and effective ways for students to get involved. Service learning activities help students develop critical skills, build self-esteem and are a great way to make a tangible difference in the community.

1.Collect donations:
Supplies are always needed when caring for animals, whether it’s for adonations disaster situation or the ongoing care of homeless pets at a local animal shelter. Often space is a concern for storing items, so have students research what the biggest needs are before deciding what to collect. Often, monetary donations are the best option for relief agencies.

We received monetary donations, supplies and food for the animals in our care. Supplies were also used to support families reunited with their pets.

2. The importance of identification:

In disaster situations animals can be easily separated from their families. If the animals have identification such as a microchip or a tattoo, with up-to-date contact information, it’s much easier to reunite families. Ask students if their pets have tags and microchips or tattoos. Have your students start an awareness campaign encouraging tags/microchips.

3. Express gratitude:
Expressing gratitude provides us with a deeper connection to others and positively influences our emotions and behaviours.thanks card1

Have students think of someone who did something they appreciated and write them a thank-you note or a letter. It may help to brainstorm some ideas or start a gratitude journal to practice being mindful of expressing gratitude.

Two young children wrote us a thank-you card for saving their cat Toby.  This card was shared and cherished by many volunteers working at the centre.

Do you know of a class or a student who did something postive in response to the Fort McMurray fires? Share your stories in the comments section below.

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