The mishmash of animals — lost and found — comprise just a fraction of those displaced from their owners as the Kincade Fire rages in Northern California. The blaze has spurred unprecedented blackouts and forced more than 200,000 people to flee their homes, sometimes without warning, causing hundreds of cats, dogs, horses and other livestock to be left behind.
Enter Tai Bruce, the 33-year-old co-creator of Pet Rescue and Reunification, a grass-roots Facebook effort to compile posts and notices of missing animals all in one place. Bruce and a team of like-minded volunteers work both online and in the field to identify lost pets, track them down and reunite them with their owners — a tireless undertaking that will continue long after the fire subsides.
Bruce, a former San Francisco Animal Care & Control reserve officer who now lives in Oregon, said she began the initiative with co-creator Signe Nielsen during the 2015 Valley Fire, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. They duplicated their efforts for the similarly destructive 2017 wildfires in Northern California, as well as the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. She says the pattern is similar each time: a flurry of Facebook posts and messages from devastated pet owners, desperately in search of their animals, with little idea where to look.
Local shelters, clinics and veterinary offices are a good place to start, Bruce said. But often, pet owners affected by the sudden evacuation orders possess little identifying information for their animals, other than a name, location and photos on their phone.
“There’s a need. Every single year there’s some sort of fire, flood or another disaster in Northern California — that’s what keeps fueling us,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching seeing these people try to search for their pets with nowhere to go.”
The Kincade Fire grew to 75,415 acres Monday night, stretching to an area more than twice the size of San Francisco to become California’s biggest fire of the year. The blaze is 15 percent contained, and officials say they expect it to burn until at least Nov. 7 — a dire situation that will only be exacerbated by forthcoming windstorms in Sonoma and Napa counties.
During that time frame and beyond, unpaid volunteers with Pet Rescue and Reunification will gather as much information as they can to match owners with their missing animals. They’ll be forced to ramp up their efforts even further when evacuation lines are lifted, allowing people to return and see if their homes — and pets — remain.
This year, a number of volunteers lost power or were forced to evacuate themselves, Bruce said, straining the group’s ability to operate. Some have worked 18-hour days to track down the missing pets, combing through shelter lists and lost-and-found posts to do so.
“I’ve pulled so many all-nighters just to get data in the system. There are people who take off from work to get things done because they care so much,” Bruce said. “It’s a really beautiful and tragic situation for everyone.”
Some owners will require the assistance of the group’s field rescue team, which uses a combination of feeding stations, trail cameras and safety traps to secure the missing animals. In other cases, reunification is as simple as volunteers matching photos and descriptions from separate channels.
“If this cat with the pink nose and the cropped ear matches this one, [volunteers] have the eye to put two and two together,” Bruce said. “Then we call the owner: ‘This shelter or person has your pet. You have to get in touch with them.’ ”
While the group’s current focus is on the fires affecting Northern California, Bruce said her team plans to expand their efforts to the fast-moving brush fires in Los Angeles when their bandwidth allows.
Bruce said their work will continue until they stop getting calls and messages. To put that in perspective, Bruce said, pets and owners separated during last year’s Camp Fire in Paradise, Calif., are still being reunited.
“These animals are truly survivors. Volunteers cry with the owners. It’s just so heartwarming,” she said. “There are people in their 80s and their animals are all they had, and when they get their dog back, you can really see the excitement in the pet.”
In the event of an emergency, pet owners are encouraged to contact Sonoma County Animal Services at 707-565-7100.