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Wolfwood Refuge starts evacuation process with wildfire nearby

55 animals needed to be prepped for relocation
Paula Woerner and Craig Watson, founders of Wolfwood Refuge near Ignacio, look over a trailer that contains wolves that are ready to be evacuated because of the Six Shooter Fire. The evacuation order was on hold Wednesday as the fire burned west of them.

Wildfires have sprung up on all sides of Durango in the last week. For one nonprofit, Wolfwood Refuge, the start of the wildfire season presents a complicated challenge – evacuating 55 large, strong wolves, wolfdogs and dogs.

Oakley, one of the wolves housed at Wolfwood Refuge near Ignacio. The refuge has had an evacuation plan in place for years, but this is its first evacuation order.

The Six Shooter Fire near Bondad prompted evacuation orders for the refuge Tuesday afternoon, said director Paula Woerner. The nonprofit near Ignacio was on hold for further evacuation Wednesday as the Six Shooter grew to more than 200 acres. But because of years of preparation, prior experience with wildfires and volunteers, Wolfwood launched into its first evacuation without an issue.

“When we first got the call, within five minutes (volunteers) were loading up some of the tougher animals,” Woerner said.

About 20 volunteers came within the first half hour, including assistance from the La Plata County Humane Society. The team gathered leashes, medications, crates and other items – staging some items and evacuating others. Some people made records of where the animals were, while others worked with the animals.

The team was able to fully evacuate 23 animals to an off-site location Tuesday night in La Plata County. The other trailer was filled with some animals, staged and ready to leave.

But handling large, strong wolves and wolfdogs presents its own challenges, especially in an emergency. Some animals can be handled only by Woerner; others might require tranquilizers or need to stay together because they are part of a pack. Enclosure and containment are a top priorities, so they have to use specialized equipment to transfer them.

Metal fence panels are loaded on Wednesday to take to another location in preparation for a possible evacuation because of the Six Shooter Fire.

Eventually, the refuge received word that the fire had calmed down for the night Tuesday. Still, team members kept their phones next to their beds, and some former volunteers in Denver offered to drive six hours to Durango to help. The next day, the volunteers transferred 10 secure travel pens with roofs off-site in case the animals need to be gone for a while.

“We were obviously worried and concerned, but … my volunteer team is efficient and loving, and they work until they drop for the animals,” Woerner said. “Nobody was panicked. Everybody had a job.”

They could respond quickly because experienced volunteers knew how to care for and handle the animals – the most important factor so no one gets hurt, Woerner said.

The nonprofit already had two evacuation trailers, built by a volunteer five years ago. It had an evacuation plan, the necessary equipment on-site and a location already identified off-site. Fire and law enforcement agencies gave them regular updates on the fire, Woerner said.

“We cannot be more grateful about their willingness and understanding … of what it takes to get 55 big animals, including a bunch of wolves, how hard that is to get them up and out,” she said.

Paula Woerner, director of Wolfwood Refuge, gives Oakley a treat on Wednesday in his pre-evacuation pen. Volunteers relocated him and other animals in the event they have to evacuate them because of the Six Shooter Fire.

Woerner, herself, already had experience with forest fires. She lost everything to a fire in Flagstaff, Arizona, 30 years ago.

“I know how fast they can move. I’ve seen how hot they can burn. I’ve seen not being able to get back into properties. We just couldn’t allow that to happen,” she said.

While the nonprofit planned carefully for evacuations and short-term housing, Woerner said she wanted to take a second look at long-term planning.

“God forbid something happens to their home; where are they going to go?” Woerner said. “That’s a huge thing.”


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