The United Nations estimates that global wildfires will grow by 50% by 2100 due to climate change.
This past summer marked Canada's worst wildfire season on record. In fact, wildfires are intensifying at an alarming rate worldwide, with the United Nations estimating that global wildfires will grow by 50% by 2100 due to climate change. This will have profound implications for both animals and their human companions. Rising temperatures, prolonged droughts, and changing precipitation patterns have created conditions conducive to more frequent and severe wildfires. As these blazes rage through natural habitats, they not only threaten the lives of countless animals, but also disrupt ecosystems and food chains. Wildlife species are forced to flee, often with tragic consequences, and their survival becomes increasingly precarious. For pet owners in affected areas, the escalating wildfire risks pose a dual challenge. The safety and well-being of beloved pets become a top priority, necessitating evacuation plans and preparedness. Moreover, the long-term effects of these fires on ecosystems and infrastructure can impact the availability of resources and habitats for people and domesticated and wild animals. It can take a significant amount of time for communities to be rebuilt and deemed safe for re-entry, creating the need for evacuation plans, shelters, and boarding facilities for people and domesticated animals.
VWB/VSF's John Peaveler surveys Lahaina after the wildfires swept the historic town.
Responding to the NWT fires
As part of our emergency response efforts, Veterinarians Without Borders/Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (VWB/VSF), recently responded to wildfire emergencies in Maui and the Northwest Territories by teaming up local animal welfare organizations and allocating VWB/VSF team members to provide on-the-ground support. These areas were both devastated by out-of-control wildfires that devastated communities, killing people, animals, and displacing thousands more.
But, what exactly does this response look like? As both fire situations were significantly different, they also required unique responses. In the Northwest Territories, VWB/VSF first sprung into action by teaming up with the NWT SPCA and community volunteers to respond to fires approaching the community of Behchokǫ, a community of approximately 2,000 people about 100 kms outside of Yellowknife. VWB/VSF's primary goal was to help people evacuate their animals, and once they arrived at evacuation centres in Yellowknife, provide pet food, temporary shelters, and veterinary assessment and care as needed – including vaccinations.
"Often, people don't realize that in evacuation boarding situations, diseases can rapidly spread," said Marieke van der Velden, VWB/VSF's northern Canada program manager. "Vaccinating animals as quickly as possible can provide an important defense against the spread of illness in an already high stress situation," explained Marieke. She added that often, in emergency evacuations, care is especially needed for animals left behind, like fish and birds that are hard to transport.
Just weeks after wildfires forced the evacuation of Behchokǫ, their path turned towards the Northwest Territories' capital — Yellowknife, a community of approximately 20,000 people. As the fires approached, and community members began to evacuate, VWB/VSF and the NWT SPCA teamed up, once again, to procure crates, food, and other supplies for evacuees. VWB/VSF's Dr. Michelle Tuma (DVM), born and raised in Yellowknife, was deemed an essential worker by the government, becoming the only veterinarian in the territory following the evacuation order. She continued to provide support for evacuating animals, including helping to get pets on remaining flights out of Yellowknife to reconnect with their guardians in safe zones. Dr. Tuma was also essential in providing triage care for remaining animals during the evacuations, such as two dogs in Behchokǫ that were quilled by a porcupine.
Images from the wildfire evacuation response in NWT.
The incredible organization, Wings of Rescue, was able to assist in these efforts, by flying out a plane filled with 14 displaced animals, nine of which were transported to reunite with their owners who were unable to bring them on commercial flights or other forms of transportation.
We are also grateful for our community of supporters, including the United Way NWT, PetSmart Charities of Canada, The Eric S. Margolis Family Foundation, Bear’s Guardian, Pansy’s Pet Charity and so many more animal-loving folks who stepped up to help during this critical time in NWT. Thank you!
"Over 65% of our population was evacuated due to wildfires," said Dr. Tuma. "In Yellowknife, we have about a population of 22,000, and 19,000 people were confirmed evacuated... so, we are super excited to be able to send some of these pets down south with Wings of Rescue to be reunited with their owners," she added.
Wildfire response in Lahaina
In Lahaina, on the island of Maui, the devastating wildfires spread so rapidly that community members, sadly, had next to no time to respond. At least 97 people were killed in the blazes, and an estimated 3,000 animals perished. Following this tragedy, VWB/VSF team was quick to respond by teaming up with the Maui Humane Society to search for, and rescue, animals either trapped or injured by the fires, provide veterinary care triage services, distribute food and water, setup feeding stations for stray and stranded animals in destroyed areas, recover animal cadavers, and set up a hotline for animal guardians attempting to find their pets.
"In scenarios like this, the goal is to get help to animals as quickly as possible, and when they can no longer be helped, to let their human families know the outcome," said John Peaveler, VWB/VSF's international companion animal & humanitarian response specialist.
VWB/VSF's John Peaveler helping with search and rescue efforts following the wildfire in Lahaina.
As climate change continues to advance globally, we will require more proactive responses to climate-related disasters, such as wildfires. Creating evacuation plans and keeping community members informed about them is a key step in creating effective solutions. VWB/VSF will remain steadfast in creating response plans, like those in NWT and Lahaina, that not only react to ongoing emergencies, but help to ensure people and animals can remain safe and healthy.