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A small but dedicated group of animal lovers is determined to continue rescuing pets from a potential "mass grave" in the abandoned homes of Fort McMurray, Alta., despite having been kicked out last week.
Members of the group said that by Sunday afternoon, they’d received thousands of emails from evacuees of the northern Alberta wildfire whose pets were left behind.
Sam Sansalone, who’s based out of southern Alberta and is a member of the Facebook group Fort Mac Fire − Pet Rescue, where many of the efforts are being co−ordinated, said group members rescued about 230 pets on Wednesday and Thursday.
But on Thursday, and again on Friday, police kicked them out, he said.
He said authorities told them that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo was taking over pet rescue duties, and there was a risk that people working independently might loot houses under the guise of attempting to rescue pets.
Sansalone said he understands that concern, but that official resources are spread too thin, and civilians should be allowed to help.
Plus, Wood Buffalo’s rescue effort didn’t start until Saturday. Sansalone said he was worried that would be too late for many of the pets.
"This is a mass grave, in basements, in crates," he said.
He said that now, his group will try to work with local authorities. He said they’re hoping to speak with RCMP at the scene and get approval to join the official rescue efforts.
Tim McHaffie arrived at a road block outside of Fort McMurray after a two−hour drive Sunday. He was with a group of about 15 other prospective pet rescuers that came from the Facebook group.
McHaffie said there were still a few barriers to getting into the town, and into people’s houses, but he was hopeful that officials would eventually let them through.
Alberta premier Rachel Notley told a news conference that it was unsafe for people other than first responders to enter Fort McMurray, but emergency personnel were already helping rescue animals.
She said first responders were giving food and water to the pets left behind by evacuees, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was attempting to rescue what pets they could.
She said the SPCA was asking pet owners to register their pets online, to give permission for the official rescue team to enter their homes.
McHaffie said that if his group does get through, he said it was important that everyone understand what they might find.
"It’s been days now. How long have these animals been there without food and water? There’s a good chunk of them that’s probably not going to be living."
"Once this is done, people are going to sit down and they’re going to have a big cry," he added. "But the job’s the job. You’ve got to get it done."