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Volunteers, nurses, and airport staff in Fort Smith are doing what they can for dogs still in the town after its residents fled an oncoming wildfire last month.

The town of just under 3,000 people issued an evacuation order on August 12, but some pets – mostly dogs – were left behind.

A group of volunteers has since ensured those pets have their share of food, water, and walks while their families are away.

“We stayed an extra 11 days to round up all the pets and get everything organized,” said Anna Gervais, who ultimately evacuated to Red Deer with her fiancé, Robin, and seven dogs.

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Of the seven, three were hers and the rest belonged to her landlord. “His four kind-of became our priority as well,” she said.

Gervais said she and other volunteers had tried to fly pets out to Edmonton, which was their only option, to escape the risks of remaining in Fort Smith. By Friday last week, the City of Edmonton said around 1,000 NWT pets had made their way to the city – most with owners, a few without – since the territory’s multiple recent evacuations began.

Gervais said more than 40 dogs, and more than 60 animals in total, were being cared for by remaining personnel in Fort Smith when she left. An electrician and several nurses have formed part of the crew.

Nurses Shauna Wright, Alana McGrath and Amy Johnson treat a dog in Fort Smith. Photo: Anna Gervais

Fort Smith’s animal shelter holds other pets besides dogs. The likes of cats, fish in tanks, snakes, geckos, rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens are all being taken care of by a group that now numbers just over 10 volunteers.

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“They’re averaging probably seven to 10 houses per person to go do home checks,” Gervais added. Some pets are in people’s homes as the shelter ran out of room.

The priorities are ensuring all pets are fed, given water on time, and “not left behind a closed door in someone’s house.”

A dog drinks water at Fort Smith’s animal shelter. Photo: Clayton Syfchuck

The hardest part, she said, was that many people registered to have their pets taken care of but failed to notify volunteers when they left town. On the day of evacuation, Gervais and her partner say they spent 15 hours registering pets and trying to collect them.

In the initial three days, they had to chase at least seven dogs that had been set loose.

“It made our job a lot harder … but I also understand how stressful it must have been in the moment for everyone,” she said.

A volunteer comforts a dog. Photo: Clayton Syfchuck
Nurse Wright takes dogs for a walk. Photo: Shauna Wright

Gervais names Brandon Fruend, Clayton Syfchuck, Sheldon Phinney, Steve and Michelle as some of the volunteers that stayed to help. Among the nurses are Shauna Wright, Alana McGrath and Amy Johnson.

As some helpers leave, more come to take care of the dogs. Parks Canada fire information officers Alyssa Etsell and Michelle Macullo each said they had helped to walk dogs, with Etsell paying tribute to Fort Smith airline Northwestern Air Lease for its role in flying some dogs to Edmonton at no cost.

Before leaving, Gervais left the keys to her store – Northern Hound Supply – with other volunteers. Those still in the town are working through the remaining food, litter and other supplies to keep pets as healthy as they can.

An evacuee dog waits at Fort Smith’s airport. Photo: Amy Johnson

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