A week ago, Shannon Iverson jolted awake before dawn. Her roommate, who was house-sitting for their neighbor, came running into their home on Southeast 76th Avenue, screaming, “Fire,” and dialing 9-1-1.
Iverson grabbed a fire extinguisher and ran across the yard. Her efforts were futile; flames already shot out of the windows next door. But Iverson desperately wanted to get inside — some of her neighbor’s animals were still in there. The two Rottweilers had dashed out the back door, but two cats and a Chihuahua hadn’t been seen.
After the sirens, the flashing lights and the water hoses left, Iverson went into the house. The two cats lay on a blanket.
“It looked like they were sleeping,” Iverson said the next day. The cats had suffocated.
Diego, the Chihuahua, was never found but most certainly perished inside the house, too.
On that same day, Nov. 3, at least two other cats died in a townhouse fire on East 21st Street in Vancouver.
When firefighters arrived at that fire, they found a woman with burns sitting at the entrance to her driveway, said Jim Flaherty, a spokesman and firefighter for the Vancouver Fire Department. Before the woman was rushed to the hospital, she told firefighters she had nine cats in her home.
The firefighters couldn’t enter the building right away, but when they did, they found one dead cat and one that was still alive — barely.
They wrapped the injured cat in a burn blanket, brought it outside and put a pet-sized oxygen mask on its face. But with its fur burnt off, claws singed and face burnt, the cat had to be euthanized a short while later.
The two fires are a tragic reminder for pet owners to prepare themselves and their pets for fiery disasters.
When you awake to fire in your house, there’s only one thing to do: “Get out,” Flaherty said. “And once out, never go back.”
He knows this advice is hard to swallow for animal lovers — he always considered his cats and dogs part of his family. But you can still help your animals when the fire trucks arrive.
“Pinpoint where you believe (your pets) are going to be,” Flaherty said. “If we have heavy smoke downstairs and you tell us your Labrador is hiding in the upstairs bedroom, we’ll split somebody off, if at all possible, to get the dog.”
The main thing is to stay calm, Flaherty said. This will allow you to communicate your pets’ location to the firefighters. It will also enable you to make a quick decision as you get out.
If there’s heavy smoke and you know your pet is hiding in a certain room, don’t go looking for it and risk succumbing to smoke inhalation. But if you can easily reach the door of that room on your way out, close it to prevent more smoke from getting into the room.
One pet rescue stands out in Flaherty’s memory: A couple of years ago, he arrived at a fire in his car before the fire trucks did. Approaching the house, he saw two dogs standing on the back of a couch inside the living room window. He forced the front door open and grabbed the dogs. The incident proved to him that animals will go to their favorite place when stressed.
“Those dogs sat on the back of that couch every day and looked out the window,” Flaherty said.
Tips for cat people
“Cats don’t usually come when you call,” said Kathy Covey of the Cat Adoption Team in Sherwood. “So the big thing with cats is, you need to know where they hide when they’re stressed and scared.”
If you’re not aware of where that might be for your cat, watch her the next time you start the vacuum cleaner. Or when people she doesn’t know come to visit. Or when you test your smoke alarm. Wherever your cat disappears to right then is probably where she’ll be in a fire.
Again, your first objective in a house fire is to get yourself to safety. But if you do have time to get your cat, be prepared.
“You need the confidence to grab (the cat),” Covey says. “You need to learn to scruff.”
That means latching onto the right place on the back of your cat’s neck so you can carry it without getting bitten. Once you’ve grabbed the cat, pillowcases make great emergency carriers, Covey said.
Cats also may run out of the house during an emergency. You can prepare for that by having ID tags on your cat’s collar, micro-chipping it and making sure your neighbors are familiar with the cat and know its name.
Getting dogs to cooperate
It’s important that your neighbors know your dog’s name, too. If the dog is loose in the neighborhood, it will react much better to someone who knows its name.
More importantly, if you’re unconscious in your home, the dog may, in an effort to protect you, keep emergency crews from entering. But if firefighters get your dog’s name from neighbors, that helps soften the interaction, said Tanya Roberts, animal behavior specialist at the Oregon Humane Society.
Unlike cats, dogs should come when called. In case of fire, good training is a lifesaver, literally. Your dog will pick up on the stress in your voice and may be reluctant to come to you as you exit the building, choosing to hide instead.
Obedience training is crucial to successful dog ownership anyway, but in situations like this it becomes vital. “The key is to train the recall really well,” Roberts said. “Practice what to do in emergency situations.”
This could be having an extra word that emphasizes the urgency of the situation. “Now!” is a popular choice to add to the familiar “come here” in pressing moments. But you need to train the basics first.
“Start simple,” Roberts said. “Take one word (to call your dog with), stay consistent and reward your dog no matter how long it takes.”
It’s important that the dog learns that coming to you means coming to a positive experience. “Don’t let your dog associate (coming when called) with going to the vet or leaving the dog park,” Roberts said.
Once those steps are routine, train under distracting circumstances. You will be glad you did, should you ever need to persuade your dog to follow you through smoke, noise and flashing lights.
There is one really simple first step toward safeguarding yourself and your pets: Make sure your smoke alarm works.
“What gets people out also allows animals to get out,” said Lt. Allen Oswalt, spokesman for Portland Fire & Rescue.
This advice may seem so basic as to be superfluous. But it’s still not always followed. The house on Southeast 76th Street had no working smoke alarm, Oswalt said.
– Jacques Von Lunen from Oregan Live