Fort McMurray pets rescued by 'rogue' volunteer rescue team

The catastrophic wildfire has made a ghost town out of Fort McMurray. But Wyatt Colquhoun-Rivard and a small group of volunteers broke the smoke-heavy silence temporarily with the sound of breaking glass.

About a dozen stranded animals retrieved

Three dogs, Elmo, Gizmo and Lacey are cared for at the Anzac Community Centre which has been turned into an emergency reception centre for evacuees. (Topher Seguin/Reuters )

The catastrophic wildfire has made a ghost town out of Fort McMurray. 

But Wyatt Colquhoun-Rivard and a small group of volunteers broke the smoke-heavy silence temporarily with the sound of breaking glass, as they smashed their way into homes looking for stranded pets.

They ignored an evacuation order earlier this week to rescue as many stranded pets as they could, animals left behind by evacuees when they were ordered out of the city.

In an interview, Colquhoun-Rivard recalled approaching one apartment building, where he charged the door until it finally gave way. He and his companions made their way through the darkened hallways of the abandoned building, where a smoke alarm triggered days earlier wailed incessantly.

Working quickly, he stepped inside an apartment and scooped up two howling cats.

"After we broke the door down there was hair everywhere," he said. "You could tell the cats were scared, and they just didn't know what to do. It was a total apocalypse area." 

Those were just two of the dozen or so animals the group managed to rescue before police shut them down, ordering them out of the evacuated neighourhoods.

Colquhoun-Rivard said his team was made of up of members of Western Canadian Powerstrokes, a group of "truck enthusiasts who do charity work." 

They had initially been allowed into the city two days after the city-wide evacuation order, to refuel emergency vehicles running desperately low on gas. But as the fire escalated they were told to hold tight until it was safe for them to help out. That's when they decided to embark on the animal-rescue mission.

"It was a spur of the moment thing," Colquhoun-Rivard said. "And we just decided not to sit around anymore. We said 'Let's go save some pets...We went rogue.' "

He said the group started posting messages on Facebook offering to retrieve pets, and got lots of response.

"It was overwhelming how many messages there were, and kind of frustrating because we were trying to find the priority ones, before we got shut down."

They rescued Trina Holloway's five dogs and three cats.

She had been downtown when the evacuation orders were issued on Tuesday. By the time she got home, police had cordoned off her neighbourhood, and her Thickwood home was unreachable.

"We only had the clothes on our back and our animals were left at home," Holloway explained. "It was very, very hard knowing that they were left at home, and wondering whether I would ever see them again."

Holloway and her family fled to the safety of a work camp north of the city, but she was sick with worry.

"I thought, am I going to wake up and this is going to be just a bad dream. It's like nothing I had gone through in my entire life."

As she was scouring the internet for help for her abandoned animals, she stumbled across Colquhoun-Rivard's Facebook post. Within minutes, they were en route to her home.

"At first we thought it was going to be really hard because she had the most animals, but it turned out to be easiest house. The cats just sat right there, and the dogs were good, except for one."

Holloway's smallest but most demanding pet, a 10-year-old chihuahua/pomeranian mix named Kyla, was hiding under the furniture shaking. So the rescuers called Holloway and put her on speaker phone to help coax her out.

"So she heard my voice, and she came out and that's how they got her," said Holloway. "So I guess she heard my voice and recognized it, and knew it was mom."

Holloway's pets have been housed at an emergency reception centre set up outside the city. They will be put on an airplane to Edmonton on Friday, to be reunited with their owners.

Holloway said can't wait to reunite the family, and start looking for a place to stay that will accept her entire brood.

"I don't know who is going to be more excited, them or us," Holloway said through tears. "I don't know what I would have done without Wyatt's help. We'll never forget it."

Holloway's son Cade and one of their five family dogs, a lab-mix named Kirara. (Supplied )