While most of the news surrounding the Valley View last month fire dealt with the evacuation of residents and the impact on surrounding homes, one local group made sure that the animals affected by the blaze weren’t forgotten.
The concept behind Spokane’s Humane Evacuation Animal Rescue Team actually got its start after the firestorm of 1991 when many of the horse owners in the Ponderosa area expressed concern that evacuation plans for animals had fallen short. As with many of the organizational efforts put into place after the fire, a collaborative system was put into place, drawing on local and statewide resources.
The only problem was that the program lacked volunteers, recalls Nancy Hill, executive director of Spokane County Regional Animal Protection Services.
“We were missing the workforce,” Hill said.
After Hurricane Katrina devastated the New Orleans area in 2005, driving residents and animals from their homes, the idea for a Spokane-based animal rescue group was revived. Hill remembers around 100 people showing up for the first meeting.
“We knew we needed a vehicle for us to communicate how to handle a disaster,” Hill said.
The organization’s first year was spent training with groups like the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Humane Society while receiving support from the SpokAnimal, the Spokane Humane Society, SCRAPS and local veterinarians. By the time H.E.A.R.T. had established a board of directors, the volunteer corps was down to 40, which is approximately where it stands today. The agency will celebrate its official two-year anniversary this December.
“They are a fantastic group of dedicated people,” Hill said. “They truly are a credit to this community.”
Janis Christensen, director of H.E.A.R.T., was among a handful of Spokane area volunteers who flew back to Louisiana to help in the aftermath of the hurricane as part of a nationwide relief effort. She said the experience reinforced the necessity of establishing a local program to support animals in times of crisis.
“It really brought the issue to the forefront,” said Christensen. “It was clear that something needed to be in place for animals.”
Christensen arrived in New Orleans two weeks after the hurricane and spent 10 days rescuing dogs and cats stranded by the flood.
“The efforts by people down there were just heroic,” she said.
When news of the Valley View fire began to circulate in the early evening hours of July 10, Hill received a call from the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office that help would be needed in securing a shelter for animals evacuated from the Dishman-Mica area.
“My very first call after that was to H.E.A.R.T.,” Hill said.
By 8:30 p.m., Christensen and a group of volunteers had organized a makeshift shelter at the Spokane County Fair and Expo Center. Dogs, cats, goats and horses were soon filtering into the site.
“It helped out a ton because we didn’t have to send resources over there,” said Bill Clifford, a spokesman with the Spokane Valley Fire Department. “They really made a major difference.”
Microchips and tags helped owners find animals in the aftermath of the fire. By Friday afternoon, the shelter had been dismantled.
Janet Schaeffer, a H.E.A.R.T. volunteer who serves on the board of directors, said the response during the emergency was an indication of how training and preparedness pay dividends.
“We were ready,” Schaeffer said. “I think everyone was really proud of how it went.”
Last July, Schaeffer journeyed down to Oklahoma to help with the rescue mission during a series of series floods. As with the efforts following Hurricane Katrina, Schaeffer said volunteers pulled together to provide hope during a perilous time.
“The best thing is knowing that when there are animals in crisis there are people around who care about their life and safety,” she said. “It’s like the Red Cross of the animal world.”
Want to find out more?
To find out more about H.E.A.R.T. or to volunteer, call 251-1251 or visit www.pnw-heart.org.