Joan Merriam: Disaster planning |

Joan Merriam: Disaster planning

It happened in Paradise in 2018 … in Plumas and Sonoma counties in 2019 … in the Bay Area and the North Coast last year … and in Northern California, right now. Disastrous and deadly wildfires.

Drive ninety miles northeast — just fifty miles as the crow flies — and you’ll be in the heart of the Dixie Fire, the second largest in California’s history. Fifty miles to the southeast is the Caldor Fire. Both of them together have incinerated over a million acres, destroyed close to 1300 homes, killed uncounted numbers of wildlife, and forever changed the lives of us all.

I’ve talked about disaster planning before in this column, but thought now would be a good time to revisit the subject.

We all know, all too well, that it could happen to us.

Your Own Safety

First, of course, we need to ensure our own safety in case of a disaster: we can’t do anything to help our animals if we’re incapacitated. That means having a plan for quickly gathering your important items and your animals, knowing how to get out of your house, identifying the roadway escape routes, and establishing a communication plan that assigns someone outside your area to act as contact in case you get separated from your family.

Safeguarding Your Dog

First and foremost, make sure your dog is wearing a collar with up-to-date ID tags, which should include the dog’s name and your phone number (both landline and cell). It’s just as important that your dog be microchipped: it’s inexpensive and painless, and will help reunite you if your dog ends up in a shelter.

Make paper or digital copies of all your dog’s vaccination records — especially rabies — and make sure they’re easily accessible. Include details of any acute medical conditions and prescription medications.

Put a “Save my Pet” sticker in the window or near the front door so that firefighters know there is a pet inside. (I carry a similar card in my wallet to advise emergency personnel that I have animals at home if I’m injured or unable to communicate.)

Having both a human and canine “go bag” that you can grab instantly is critical. Your dog’s bag should include five days’ worth of food and water, medications or a medication list, first-aid kit, your veterinarian’s contact information, a recent photo of your dog, and a familiar toy or blanket that will help your dog feel safe in a strange location.

Remember that smoke from wildfires can be just as toxic to you dog as to you. Once you start smelling smoke, get your dog indoors immediately, and shut all the windows and doors. Avoid walks or extended time outdoors. If you’re uncertain about the air quality, go to AirNow or other sites that show the AQI in your area. Keep in mind that older dogs or those with cardiovascular or respiratory issues are at high risk of smoke irritation. If you notice continuous coughing or wheezing, difficulty breathing, nasal discharge, or eye irritation in your dog due to poor air quality, contact your veterinarian.

Prepare for the Worst

What if the worst happens and you find yourself facing an impending wildfire? I can’t say this strongly enough: EVACUATE IF YOU’RE ORDERED TO DO SO. Remember: an order is mandatory; a warning simply asks you to remain alert for an order. That being said, it’s best NOT to wait for a mandatory evacuation order, since leaving as soon as you get a warning makes the process less stressful, and helps you avoid tragedies such as being surrounded by fire when you’re caught in traffic backups. Remember: your home and possessions can be replaced, but your life and the lives of your animals can’t.

Always have a plan to get your dog out of the house if you’re evacuated. Pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost or killed. (In the recent River Fire, one of my colleagues was unable to get home from work, and lost all three of her beloved dogs.)

What else can you do to prepare? Sign up for for Nevada County’s CodeRed, which sends emergency alerts to your cell or landline via text message, phone call, or email.

Go to CalFire’s Ready for Wildfire page for a printable evacuation guide.

Give a set of house keys to a friend or neighbor who can rescue your pets if you’re not home.

Finally, be aware that ash, flying embers, and nearby flames can be extremely dangerous for your dogs: not only are they at risk of direct burns to their coat and skin, they can also suffer inhalation burns to their respiratory tract.

Events like these terrible wildfires can make us feel helpless, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. There are things that every one of us can do to keep ourselves and our beloved companions safe — but we have to do it before that kind of crisis hits.

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue

Events like these terrible wildfires can make us feel helpless, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. There are things that every one of us can do to keep ourselves and our beloved companions safe — but we have to do it before that kind of crisis hits.
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