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‘I was finally able to breathe’: The animal-rescue drama in fire-ravaged Fort McMurray

When thousands were told to flee the massive wildfire roaring across dry earth in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Tony and Anna Middleton went to work.

The couple – both bus drivers who typically transport workers from their camps to the area’s oil-sands fields – suddenly set about helping to get some of the 80,000 residents out of town, their son wrote on social media.

The Middletons were forced to leave behind their home, along with family members and friends. They also left their beloved 14-year-old dog, Abby.

“They left their dog behind because, as my mother said, ‘What if someone left your sister behind and countless other people to do something selfish like rescue one dog?'” their son, also named Tony Middleton, wrote on Facebook.

“My parents are selfless, brave, and the most loving people you will ever meet.”

The junior Middleton also posted a plea on Facebook, asking people still in Fort McMurray for help; his family’s dog – “old and deaf but still kicking” – had been abandoned and left by herself for days, he noted.

“The door is unlocked and her leash should be by the entrance,” he said. “My parents are absolutely beside themselves as she’s been alone for two days.”

And then, as the fire raged, the Middletons waited.

Officials said Tuesday that 25 wildfires were still burning around Fort McMurray, which was devastated by what the city’s fire chief referred to as a “beast . . . a fire like I’ve never seen in my life.”

The city, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said, “was surrounded by an ocean of fire,” turning the province into an inferno. More than 1,500 firefighters – on the ground and in the air – have been working for days to stabilize the fire.

Some residents fled to Edmonton and other surrounding cities, some sought shelter in oil-sands work camps, some boarded planes to flee the fire. Many were forced to leave hundreds of pets to fend for themselves.

Since the evacuation, area city animal shelters have been inundated with pets – either because the families fled too fast, or because, without a home of their own, they had to surrender them, according to the Globe and Mail.

But humane societies – and volunteers acting on their own – have tried to help.

One group, Fort McMurray Animal Rescue, created has a crowdsourcing search, asking people to list their lost animals – dogs, cats, birds, rodents and reptiles – so volunteers could try to find them.

Resident Stephanie Greene posted on Facebook about getting separated from her family’s puppy, Max, and offered a reward for his safety, according to CBCNews.

Marty Frost, a Good Samaritan who stayed behind and searched for people’s pets, went looking for Greene’s home in Abasand, a neighborhood in Fort McMurray, according to CBCNews.

“The street signs are melted, and all your reference points are gone,” Frost told the Greenes, according to the Canadian news service.

Some pet owners said Frost “literally kicked in people’s doors,” at their own request, to save their animals.

After several failed attempts, Frost told CBCNews, he finally found Greene’s dog, as well as her pet rabbit.

“He said, ‘Yeah, I rescued your dog, and I got your rabbit,’ ” Greene told CBCNews. ” ‘But it’s actually probably bittersweet for you, because your house was just starting to catch fire when we rescued him.’ “

“I don’t care about the house,” she said. “We got exactly what we wanted.”

Fourteen-year-old Louise Cruz talked to the Globe and Mail about the agonizing moment she had to leave behind her Yorkie-Chihuahua mix, Atlas, because Highway 63 was filled with people trying to escape.

“I’ve been thinking of him from the moment the fire started,” she said. “He’s only eight months old.”

Louise told the newspaper that she started calling all of the animal rescue groups in Fort McMurray; when she woke up Friday morning, her phone was abuzz.

“My phone was blowing up,” she said. “I had messages from all kinds of friends of family and I saw this picture of a lady.”

The woman was a rescue worker – and she was holding Atlas.

“I was finally able to breathe; I was like ‘Okay, he’s not hurt,’ ” the teen said. “We all cried tears of joy.”

For days, authorities have been arranging convoys to drive animals to shelters outside of the city.

A local locksmith stayed behind to work with rescue crews to help them access homes where pets remain trapped.

An airline pilot broke code – permitting furry friends on a plane bound for Edmonton.

“We’re all animal lovers here,” the pilot, Keith Mann, told the Toronto Star. “We knew it was important for owners to re-connect with them.”

Mann, manager of flight operations for Suncor Energy, told the newspaper that rather than putting the pets in a kennel – which is typically required – he let them huddle with their owners on the plane.

“I just said, ‘No, let’s do this,’ ” he told the newspaper. “Everyone wanted to get out, so it didn’t matter.”

As for the Middletons, their lost 14-year-old dog, Abby, was among the animals saved.

Tony Middleton said on Facebook that his parents’ dog had been “rescued by a complete stranger.”

“Thank you for all of the love, support, and kind words,” he wrote. “My family and I are so relieved and filled with joy.

“We are so very proud to be Canadian!”

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