Emergency Preparation: Advance Planning Enables Sled Dog Community to Save 600 Dogs from Wildfire

Members of the mushing community, volunteers, and emergency responders raced to save more than 600 sled dogs from the Sockeye Fire near Willow, Alaska. Photo courtesy Chuck Cubbison.  

Dog owners raced the flames to save more than 600 sled dogs as a wildfire swept through Alaska’s Mat-Su Valley last week. In the fire’s path were the homes and kennels of dozens of competitive racing and recreational sled dog owners. 

As others fled the area, sled dog owners and their fellow mushers from surrounding areas drove toward the advancing fire to help transport their animals to safety. The Sockeye Fire, named for the road where it originated, devastated more than 7,000 acres north of Willow, Alaska.

The densely-forested area is vulnerable to fires sparked by lightning strikes and human carelessness, and recent hot, dry conditions increased the risk. 

Just weeks earlier, members of a local sled dog organization met to discuss emergency plans. Because of this advanced planning and fast action by the mushing community, hundreds of dogs and other pets in sledding kennels were saved from the Sockeye Fire. Musher Chuck Cubbison of Wasilla assisted with the evacuations.

“The Willow Dog Mushers Association has had an emergency preparation committee for a number of years. We recommend that owners have a ‘buddy kennel’ ready to help evacuate and house their dogs,” said Cubbison, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency employee. He and wife Cheri Cubbison own, race and show Siberian Huskies.

AKC judge and Siberian Husky exhibitor Chris Curtis and husband Wayne Curtis, a 5-time Iditarod finisher, opened their Wasilla home to three people, 17 dogs, and three cats evacuated from the fire.

“It is so important that dog owners have contingency plans in place to be able to quickly relocate and care for all their pets,” Curtis said. “This fire moved so quickly that some people escaped with nothing but their dogs.”

Area businesses and nearby mushing kennels provided refuge to evacuated sled dogs while firefighters battled to contain the blaze. The Alaska Dispatch News reported that approximately 800 residents were displaced, 132 properties burned, and 26 homes were destroyed by the Sockeye Fire. Wildfires in other parts of the state continue to burn.

“We in the mushing community were very focused on saving sled dogs from the fire, but many other families and pets were also affected,” Cubbison said. “The American Kennel Club offers grant programs in support of emergency services for dogs.”

“The planning and cooperation of this sledding community is a testament to the love and care its members have for all their dogs and demonstrates the amazing feats that can be achieved by working together,” said Sheila Goffe, AKC Director of Government Relations.  “Federal and state laws require many kennels to have emergency preparedness disaster plans, but having an emergency plan should be a priority for every dog owner.”

The AKC provides information, resources, and an evacuation checklist to help owners plan ahead to care for their dogs in natural disasters. Individual dog owners can be disabled by accidents or illness; therefore, owners are urged to advise neighbors, family, and friends about how to care for their dogs in emergency situations. The AKC encourages its affiliated clubs to participate in emergency planning for club members and dog owners in their communities.

AKC Pet Disaster Relief helps local emergency management care for pets following a disaster through donations to the AKC Reunite Canine Support and Relief Fund. AKC clubs have helped raise nearly a million dollars to help pets in emergency situations and to deploy 24 AKC Pet Disaster Relief trailers stocked with essential, nonperishable necessities for sheltering pets. Another 12 trailers are scheduled for delivery in communities across the U.S.