DOG YARD DISASTER PREPAREDNESS

Summer brings forest fires in Interior Alaska, and smoky days are reported on the weather along with rain and temperature. You can not help but be aware of them and where they are as summer progresses. But that is a good thing. Being aware of even the possibility of impending doom is actually the first step to preparing for it. Each area and situation brings its own set of situations a responsible kennel owner needs to be prepared for, and the specifics will vary; but there are some general safeguards.What is your most basic need when the worst happens? For many of us that is the need to (quoting the house from Amityville Horror here) “GET OUT.” Have a plan to evacuate every single one of your dogs, quickly removing them from danger. Really, what would it take to get all your dogs off your property right now, timed, no room for error? Also consider where you can evacuate to. You will need a place that can safely house your entire kennel, for an undetermined period of time. And since disasters tend to be massive, you may not be able to count on your neighbors to be a safe place. So consider having a few alternatives in different places. Make an inventory of what equipment you have available to move your team, and make sure it is in accessible and in working order. During the Boundary Fire of ’04 our plan to evacuate with friends and trucks coming to get us went out the window when the fire conditions changed and the road was closed. No one could come help us. But by using a long chain hooked from the front of the truck to the rear of the quad and hooking dogs to drop chains along it we were able to walk over 40 dogs all together to the relative safety of a huge gravel pit.When things go wrong you go on to plan B. You do have a plan B right?Next, we have health and welfare needs of the team. You got somewhere safe, now you need to be able to care for your team where you are. You may not have to bring every single piece of gear with you, depending on the situation and where you go, but you must be sure you have your basic requirements covered. You have got to feed and care for your dogs, and you must have the ability to safely house/restrain your dogs. Remember that your dogs will need water, so consider water sources. Also think about a first aid kit and other tools that would be useful in your situation: picket lines, buckets, shovel, chain tool or wire cutters and the like. In some situations you should look at the possibility of long term relocation and plan for that possibility. What you will need exactly will depend on your situation.It takes very little effort to get these things together at the first hint of danger. Needed items can easily be packed together in a tote or duffle bag or left on the dog truck, saving time and effort in a stressful situation. This is when you might consider yourself. Throw into your dog first aid kit any meds you take, some energy bars, water bottles, and whatever gear you may need for yourself. No harm if all this stuff just sits there unused.Lastly consider kennel preservation. Work out a way to save paperwork, mementoes, and expensive or hard to replace custom gear. For fires there are specific things you can do to make your property safer, the idea of defensible space. You can also choose building materials and design to help. The Alaska Firewise program has great information online to help you prepare your property: http://forestry.alaska.gov/pdfs/06Firewise.pdf. This last category is for things you think about once the dogs are out of danger and temporarily set. But if you’re preparing in advance, you have the luxury of organizing and dealing with these concerns calmly. With advance notice you can take measures to secure your team and belongings long before disaster strikes. Preparation should begin at the first sign of danger because you may not have time later. This is not the time for a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Seriously, to this day I wish we had moved our team at the first hint of danger when faced with the Boundary Fire of ‘04 instead of relying on Forestry’s assurance that we would not need to evacuate. At the time it seemed like such a hassle to move all the dogs, why over react. But the stress of an emergency evacuation was considerably worse. Luckily we had prepared, and I firmly believe that is why we were able to deal with the situation when it all went up in flames. (Pardon the pun) Little things like keeping vehicles fueled and ready to use, having more than one plan and some gear already packed up made a difference. Because of my overactive imagination and mentally thinking about what we would do if things got bad made a difference in how we were able to handle the situation when it did present itself.Yes that is right, my overactive imagination made the situation better, not worse. It was more than a century ago when Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors only the prepared mind." And he was onto something. The largest part of dealing with disaster is preparation, and a big part of that is mental. Most of you, thankfully, will not be facing forest fires, floods, and natural disasters on a regular basis. But you can still use mental imagery and visualization to prepare your response. Athletes have known about this and successfully taken advantage of it for years. Flight simulation training and military applications are also widely used because they allow people to practice these situations in a safe environment.This is great news when faced with disaster because it means you do not need ‘trial by fire’ to get better at responding without panic. Those brooding “worst case scenario” thoughts that haunt you can be put to good use. The trick is to not wallow in the hopelessness of them. Take the opportunity to say, OK if this happens, what do I need to do? Then see yourself rising to the occasion and dealing with it. With visualization you have the luxury of time to think through your options, identify possible outcomes, and modify accordingly. It’s much better to find the flaws in your plan while it plays out in your mind than in reality. Think things through until you have the best possible outcomes. And then mentally make sure you “practice” or think about and really know what you have planned. The visualization also allows you to have a clear idea of exactly what preparations to take in your situation. Start by asking yourself, “What is the worst that can possibly happen?” Of course I would not wish the worst on anyone, but that is what you should be ready for.What? Not a naturally doom and gloom person? Here let me help you get started. Fire in Real Life: Hours after attending a BLM Fire Management at the local Chatanika Lodge where locals were assured we would not be evacuating, and if it did come to that there would be a 24 notice, we happened by BLM on other business to hear that the Boundary Fire burning in the White Mountains near our home had crossed the highway…where we live...Driving home past road blocks we were faced with darkening conditions as smoke blocked out the sun. By the time we got home, the fastest trip ever, we needed headlamps to see. They are stored with working batteries by the door year round because, hey you never know. There was time for one phone call before the heat of the fire melted phone lines. We were essentially on our own, as the road had been closed and our phone was out. The generator that provided power for the property had stopped working. Fire personal were caught unprepared and were slowly moving into the area.Our nice plan for the Erhart family of Fairbanks to come pick us up with dog trucks and take us to town was not going to work in this situation. We knew a gravel pit just 1 mile from the house would be someplace we could at least be safe with the dogs. It is a huge open dirt area with no fuel, and one edge is a pond. There was ample space to picket out dogs if we had the means, so chains, stakes, a chain tool and drops had all been gathered together a few days earlier for the move, which at that point we still hoped to avoid. Also a box of important papers and photo albums had been put together. It proved to be easily thrown into the back seat of the truck along with the house pets.Now all we had to do was get 52 dogs and 11 puppies to the gravel pit. Airline kennels had also been set out, just in case. The puppies and moms were loaded into the large kennels in the back of the truck with a few key pieces of gear we had out and ready, because like I told you I am a worry-wart.Now at this point in time the fire is coming at us from the top end of the property, vision is blocked by smoke, and burning ashes are falling. We were able to use the truck where a sled would be and the quad for a leader with a long section of chain between. No time for harnesses; dogs were hooked by drop chain to collars for the long long walk to the gravel pit. It is at this time a fire truck appears blocking the driveway. With no visibility they have no way of seeing that I am on a quad leading a team of 45-ish dogs and some free runners down the driveway. After announcing (with a few key flavor words I am sure) that there was no way I was backing up, they moved to let us pass. On reaching the gravel pit we found other locals congregating there, all amazed to see the huge team walking in. We had already found a place to picket the dogs. I had actually gone on a scouting trip for one few days earlier. Paranoia rules! We set to picketing them out and doing a head count. In the confusion with the fire truck, 6 dogs had got off and ran back home. Troopers now prevented Dan from driving our truck out of the gravel pit to go get them. They could stop the truck, maybe, but could not see well enough to know he went off through the woods back home where one more quad sat gassed up and ready to go. He brought the last 6 dogs to applause from everyone gathered in the relative safety of the gravel pit. While watering and checking everyone, we found a few scrapes, but amazingly no injuries for all that adventure.Later that night fire officials would declare the road ‘open’ and we could then move our team to town. Thank you to Lynn Orbison, and the folks at the Fairbanks North Star Animal Shelter as well as Curtis and Shannon Erhart for assistance that evening. Our dogs would end up staying at the Erhart’s for over 2 weeks until it was safe enough to bring them back to the property. Their hospitality was amazing.I have replayed it in my mind many times. A lot went wrong, a lot went right. None of it can be changed, but it all can be learned from. And that is just one example of when things go from bad to worse. May I suggest we start a discussion on the Mushing Magazine Facebook page where people can share their experiences and advice with the goal that we can all help each other be better prepared.Stay Safe and Happy Trails. •

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