When disaster strikes, pet owners face the question of whether to take time to bring along an animal during an evacuation. Fire officials say an emergency kit and advance planning can help families better deal with pets during a disaster.

Homes were already on fire when Ashland Police Officer Steve MacLennan told an elderly couple living on Oak Knoll Drive that they had to evacuate.

"Let's do it quick, 'cause the houses on the side of you are up in flames," he said as the Aug. 24 fire bore down on the home.

The woman told MacLennan that she couldn't find the couple's cat.

MacLennan bundled the man and the couple's dog into their car, then helped the woman corner the cat in a bedroom.

Eventually, she caught it, but then slowed down as MacLennan held the cat and insisted that she get into the waiting car.

"Just get in. I'm going to pop the cat in there. We have to move quick," he said, his words captured by the camera and microphone system on his police motorcycle. (To see the video, go to www.dailytidings.com/oakknollfire.)

She climbed in, the couple drove out of their driveway, and MacLennan raced off to help other residents on Oak Knoll Drive.

A precious two minutes and 23 seconds had ticked by as the woman tried to catch the cat — almost half of the five minutes it took the couple to evacuate their home.

When disaster strikes, pet owners face the question of whether to take time to bring along an animal during an evacuation.

Many don't know what they should do.

"The sad truth is that the standard procedure is if your life is threatened, you should abandon pets. If your life is not threatened, you can try and bring pets," said Ashland Community Emergency Response Team Coordinator Richard Randleman.

If a resident does have time to save a pet, doing so can actually be of help to firefighters and police.

"One of the significant problems for first responders is people will go back into the disaster zone to recover a pet. That puts their lives in danger, and also first responders' lives in danger," Randleman said.

He said the time to think about how to deal with a pet is before disaster strikes. Pet issues should be addressed in a household's regular emergency plan.

For example, store pet food and extra water for a pet in your household emergency kit, and figure out in advance where your pet could go if you are displaced from your house.

Identify pet-friendly hotels, or check with a veterinarian or kennel about boarding an animal during emergencies, Randleman recommended.

Find a neighbor, friend or relative who can evacuate and care for your pet if you are unable to do so, the Federal Emergency Management Agency suggests.

The Jackson County Expo in Central Point can house large animals such as livestock.

During the aftermath of the Oak Knoll fire that destroyed 11 homes and damaged three others, the Bear Creek Animal Clinic in Ashland offered to house pets from households affected by the fire, as well as pets found wandering after the disaster. It also offered to provide a list of all animals received to Ashland Fire & Rescue so that families could be reunited with their pets.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.