Colorado Fire Victims Who Couldn't Rescue Pets Wait for Word on Their Survival

After fires swept through the Denver, Colorado, area last week, some people who evacuated their homes are anxiously waiting to hear if their pets survived.

Almost 1,000 houses were destroyed in the blaze, some with pets still inside as homeowners were not in their homes when the fire began and couldn't come back for them.

There have been some reunions. KDVR reported that a Superior man named Camden Hall thought he lost his cat, Merlin, when his house went up in flames while he was at work.

But a woman found Merlin after hearing meowing outside of one of the few houses not destroyed by the fire. Though the cat had a few burns that had to be treated, he and his owner were back together by the end of the day.

In another story, 9News reported that Boulder Police Officer Seth Ireland's home of 20 years burned down in the fire. He and his wife were not home at the time to save their three dogs, Moab, Hollywood and Moose, but a neighbor was able to kick down the door and save them.

But for pet owners like Lisa Young, the fate of their beloved animals is uncertain. Young, who watched her house burn down on the news, is still waiting to find out what happened to her cats, 5-year-old sisters Joy and Noelle.

Colorado, horse, wildfires
Some Coloradoans whose homes were destroyed in grass fires that hit Boulder County last week are still waiting to hear if their pets survived. Above, Lisa Young, who lost her home in the fire, pets her horse, Foxy, on January 5, 2022, in Golden, Colorado. Brittany Peterson/AP Photo

When Young evacuated her home as a fast-moving Colorado wildfire burned, it looked like firefighters were going to be able to stop what appeared then to just be a grass fire in a field behind her home. She just took her purse, turned off her slow cooker and television, and made sure her two cats had enough food and water to drink, thinking she would be back home soon.

Later that night, staying with relatives, she watched images of her home outside of Denver burning on television, her driveway recognizable because of her father's old Corvette on fire. Her house was one of nearly 1,000 destroyed in the blaze, leading her to fear that her calico cats died in the fire.

If the windows broke in the fire's heat, there's a chance the cats, who were feral as kittens and cannot be held unless they are willing, might have escaped, she said.

"There's that one little hope," said Young, who has been comforted by daily visits to take care of her horse, who was safe from the flames in his boarding stable.

The Humane Society of Boulder Valley has reunited over 25 pets with their owners since the fire destroyed homes in the communities of Louisville and Superior, including a dog who had spent two days outside and had some burned paws, said the group's CEO, Jan McHugh-Smith. The organization has also been taking care of about a dozen animals, including a tortoise and a cockatiel, in its shelter who cannot live with their owners in their temporary living situations, she said.

Like Young, many pet owners have posted messages and photos of their pets on a Facebook page set up to help find missing animals. Others trying to help have also been posting photos of pets, mainly cats, sighted in their areas and offering to take in pets who can't live with their owners in temporary housing.

The page's organizer, Katie Albright, a missing animal recovery specialist from the area who now lives in Oregon, is careful not to draw any conclusions about the likelihood of still finding a pet after the fire. While working to recover pets after the Holiday Farm fire in Oregon in 2020, some were skeptical any would be found but the last cat trapped there was not captured until a year later, she said.

However, people are so eager to help though that they might end up harming other animals not affected by the fire, Albright said.

While dogs have been known to wander far from disasters, cats tend to stay within about a mile of home. Despite that, there have been some reports of people finding cats in communities beyond the fire zone and taking them to their local shelters, thinking they are missing cats from the fire area. However, they are more likely outdoor cats that live in those areas and, unless they have a microchip to identify their owners, they likely will never get back to their homes, she said.

Some owners also want to set up traps to capture missing cats but Albright instead recommends first setting out some food in an area with some kind of cover, like vegetation, and using a trail camera—the kind hunters use to scout out areas for wildlife—to check on what animals, if any, may be in the area before deciding to set up a trap to avoid capturing a cat who is not missing or a wild animal. Any traps must also be checked at least every hour to avoid having a panicked trapped animal hurt itself, she said.

Young said she will not have closure until she is able to go back to her home and find any remains of her cats.

For now, her visits to Foxy, a 20-year-old quarter horse, give her a bit of normalcy and comfort in her upended life. The horse is so in tune with her, he is tense because he feels how stressed she is now, she said.

"I can still hug him. I can still kiss him and love on him. He's needy like I am," Young said, with a laugh.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.