May 8, 2016 / 5:55 PM / a year ago

Rescue workers retrieving pets in aftermath of Canadian wildfire

Bryan Jones holds onto a dog he saved from the raging wildfires after leaving Fort McMurray and assembling in Wandering River on May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Topher Seguin

WANDERING RIVER, Alberta (Reuters) - Emergency workers in Alberta are joining a grassroots effort to rescue pets trapped in homes after a massive wildfire forced their owners to leave without them.

Kevin Wonitowy, a locksmith for 20 years, said he entered the city of Fort McMurray on Saturday to pick the locks of homes with pets, after a request from the local emergency management team.

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which oversees Fort McMurray, said on its website that it was sending teams to rescue pets at their owners’ request but noted the use of a locksmith would be a last resort.

Wonitowy said he would be needed for three to four days in the nearly empty city that previously housed 88,000. He will open doors for emergency workers who will take the pets to shelters.

Wood Buffalo has said it is not doing interviews, and calls to officials went unanswered.

Fort McMurray was evacuated with little warning on Tuesday, with residents carrying so few possessions that a nearby community set up a used-clothing station for them.

Access has since been restricted, and many owners who abandoned their pets longed to reunite with them, calling on animal shelters and appealing for information online.

Just days after the evacuation, some residents entered the city after they said they obtained permission from local authorities.

Bryan Jones said he and a friend rescued 27 dogs and cats on Thursday.

But local police and officials have said they do not want non-emergency personnel in the city, warning that there is still thick smoke and major damage.

Even so, pet lovers have been making grassroots efforts to help.

Angel Rowe of Leduc, Alberta, south of Edmonton, said he organized a convoy to head up to Fort McMurray on Friday evening to support people like Jones. Rowe said the convoy would be stationed outside Fort McMurray to transport the rescued pets to animal shelters.

A local non-profit’s website showed more than 80 animal rescue groups had opened their doors to evacuees’ pets.

Reunification with owners, however, may not be on the horizon for every animal. Even people who brought their pets with them during evacuation ended up unable to take care of them, said Tammy Dumais, who runs the Guardian Angel Animal Rescue Society in Edmonton.

Dumais said owners who fled south have handed over at least 11 cats to her organization.

Additional reporting by Ethan Lou in Toronto and Nia Williams in Calgary; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn

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